Thursday, July 11, 2013

Barcelona, Spain → Paris, France

The day I left for Paris did not start off well at all. I'd set my alarm, but it being set for just before 4am in a crowded hostel room, I turned the ringer down a bit and stuck my phone under my pillow. And thus, it did not wake me up. Not even a little. When the driver arrived, the front desk guy came in and woke me up, asking if I was Ashley, and was I supposed to be awake to catch a ride to the airport? Oops. I throw stuff at Noah to get him up, run into the bathroom to brush my teeth and change, and thank god I'd packed everything up last night so I can just grab my things. I throw everything into the little hallway between the room and the commons area, and the driver comes in and asks in Spanish how much longer we'll be. It's the same guy from the ride in. Still completely asleep, I stare at him blankly, totally unable to process which language he's speaking to me in. I say, "What?" and he looks at me like I'm crazy and asks in English, and I answer in Spanish. My sleep brain makes no sense.

We throw keys at the reception guy, pay for the shuttle, double check that we have everything, and apologize profusely to everyone. Once we're in the car and headed toward the airport, it hits me: I'm going to Paris. I have wanted to go to Paris for my whole life. I'd dreamed about living in France. And I'd planned it as the last stop, because I had to save the best for last. Paris. Paris!!!
As it had been throughout the whole trip, we arrive at the airport with about an hour to spare and have to wait around. We wait and wait and wait until, about 20 minutes before the flight, they tell us which gate we'll be boarding at. They board us late. We sit on the plane.
And, by the way, we weren't actually flying in to Paris. It was much cheaper (gracias a Ryanair) to fly into Beauvais, which is outside of Paris. The flight isn't long, and in fact I have no recollection whatsoever of the flight itself. I either blocked it out because I was too excited for normal brain function, or I was too asleep to actually pay attention. Either way, we make it to France, and everyone on the whole plane is in shorts and tank tops since we've just come from sunny Spain, and it's freaking freezing in France. We have to exit the plane onto the tarmac, and then wait as weird security doors open and close for two people at a time, and everyone is huddling into each other and screeching at the bursts of freezing wind cutting across the runway. Once inside, there's a line the size of Texas at a ticket counter and a kiosk for bus tickets into Paris. We wait at the kiosk, I run into the bathroom to change into pants (warmth!) and three people before us, the machine stops accepting out of country credit cards. So, it's back into another line to wait to buy a ticket from an actual person. Backpacking is so glamorous.
We're let out of security into a small waiting area, with a handful of restaurants. I realize I'm dehydrated and extremely hungry, so we head to one of the little restaurants. I order a small olive bread and a water from a lady at the counter, completely in French. I'm speaking French in France! I almost throw up, I'm so excited. She says something conversationally at me, which I totally don't catch, so I just smile at her stupidly. She probably thinks I'm a little crazy, but she immediately assumed I spoke French (one point for me), and the rest of the conversation went okay, so who knows.
Outside, there's a short line and a few buses waiting, so we hop on one for the hour and a half ish ride into Paris. I manage to go a whole twenty minutes before falling asleep. I'm too tired and cold and hungry to take any photos. When we pull into the bus station, we immediately stalk off in the direction of the Metro, which turns out to be even more complicated than the Underground was when we first arrived in London. Having learned about the RER in French class, and having read that it would take us to Gare du Nord (which is the closest train station to the hostel I'd managed to book in Spain), I'm convinced this is the train we need. We end up asking someone who says it will take us nowhere near where we need to go, and I have yet another exchange with the ticket lady - in French! - about which lines we need to take to get to where we're going. It never gets old. As much as I have to think about what I'm saying, I'm still doing it, and it's really exciting.
The Metro doesn't take long, and explodes into the Gare du Nord station, which itself is huge and sprawling. We walk out onto the street, and breathe the air, and we're here, I'm in Paris. Finally.

First thing I saw in the Metro! Eee!
So, the (rough) plan had been to meet my mom in Baden Baden, Germany, where our family is from. But train tickets from Barcelona were 600$ per person, and required over 24 hours of travel. We had also talked about all of us meeting in Spain and taking a train to Paris together, which, last minute, ended up being nearly as expensive and taking just as long. I wasn't willing to sacrifice time in Paris, nor did I have that kind of money. So I asked my mom if she'd like to just meet us in Paris, and we could all find our way there somehow or another. We flew. She trained. Since it was all last minute, we also had to book a hostel for the first two nights. This proved to be expensive, and difficult - hence the day of travel planning in Barcelona. For a ridiculous amount of money, we ended up with a pretty decent place, Smart Place, which is right next to Gare du Nord and super close to Sacre Coeur and Montmartre. The staff was friendly and the rooms were small with en suite bathrooms again! The only thing I didn't like was that wifi was only available in the commons area downstairs, and not accessible from the rooms. That, and the shower was the size of a breadbox. I don't know how anyone bigger than me could have even fit in there.
Since mom wasn't arriving til late evening, we checked our bags in at the hostel, grabbed a map, and headed back to the metro to explore. Of course, having seen the stop for the Louvre marked on the metro line, this was where I chose for us to go. I just wanted to do a little exploring, you know...not see anything important until mom got there, but we couldn't just sit at the hostel for six hours! So to the Louvre we went.

So the thing is, is that I have a problem with self control. My innocent wandering became a full blown "I need to see everything right now" as soon as we stepped off the Metro. I realized I was probably going to lose it. We come out into the mall near the Louvre and take some stairs up to ground level. The buildings are old, the sky is blue, we walk through an archway and there's the Louvre, the glass pyramids, an arch, and I realize I've stopped breathing. I'm so excited and happy to be here, and then Noah hits my arm and says, "Ashley. Look." In the other direction, just peeking out above the trees is the Eiffel Tower.
 I know, I know, I'm one of those people apparently, but I tear up and nearly start to cry. The freaking Eiffel Tower!!! I'm really in Paris!

I want to go in the Louvre now. I want to walk to le Tour Eiffel now. I want to drink up everything in sight and see everything and devour Paris in one breath, now. I need to calm down. I decide there's no way I can get any closer to the Eiffel tower until my mom arrives, so we wander around outside the Louvre, and then head through the Jardin du Carrousel. There's a fair set up to the right of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, with a giant ferris wheel and rides. We listen to echoes of people yelling on the rides as we walk through the gardens. It's beautiful. The ground is dirt and my feet are dirty and I haven't eaten in hours, but I barely notice. Paris.

vraiment beaucoup des chiens!

The next thing I need to see (if I'm not seeing the Eiffel tower till later) is the Seine, so we head toward where I think it is (which luckily is the right direction). Passing fountains and statues that look hundreds of years old, I start up some stairs and this woman stops me, having just passed me. "Excuse me," she says, "Is this yours?" and holds up a thick gold band. I tell her it's not and start to walk away, and she stops me again, saying she just found it on the ground, and do I want it? Because she doesn't wear jewelry, and it must just be good luck, I'm lucky, I get to take home this gold ring, and look, it must be real gold! Mostly because she's stopping me from getting to the Seine, I thank her and take it, and start to walk away again. A second time, she calls back to me and says something along the lines of, by the way, I need money for such and such, and could you spare some change since you've had such good luck today? I laugh and hold out the ring and tell her to just take it back. She won't touch it, says it's mine, and that I should help her out. Noah rolls his eyes, grabs the ring, and sets it in the dirt in front of me, and we walk away. Agh. Scammers!
Feeling really surprised that this is actually the first encounter we've had with them, we continue along the walkway. In front of me, I watch a woman walk up the stairs, bend over and touch her fingers to the ground - where nothing is - and then turn around as I walk passed and say, "Excuse me!" holding a ring in her hand. I laugh and yell over my shoulder, "Already happened, lady!" and she just walks away. Yeesh.

Scammers vanquished, we finally make it to the street and there's the Seine, just across the way. And one of Paris' many bridges, Le Pont des Arts. This one happens to be the lock bridge, where lovers lock a padlock onto the bridge and throw the key into the Seine. It's beautiful. Parts of the fence are bent and hanging precariously over the waters, the weight of all the locks too much for it to handle.

I love you already, Paris.
We cross to the other side of the river and wander along its banks for a few hours, head into the city around the Musée d'Orsay to find some food, wander back out. There's a map of the world painted along the path on one side, and they have Hawaii stuck in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I think somebody was confused.
I immediately and completely want to live here.

Atlantic Hawaii.
We walk for a long time, not really paying attention to where we're going. We end up on the little island in the middle of the Seine, where Notre Dame is. We come up on the building from a construction area, everything blocked off with wooden planks, and wood bleachers, the top of the building poking out above everything. It looks different than I imagined.

Different how!
That has been such a strange thing about traveling. I've seen these cities, these places, these monuments. But actually being there, seeing them in's never quite what you expect. Notre Dame was grand. We walk down the bleachers and sit for a bit, to admire the view and to rest from all the walking. After a short while, we notice a man in a khaki jumper, wearing goggles, performing for everyone seated in the bleachers. He's imitating and following around tourists, running up to older ladies and shouting, "Mama!", grabbing the hands of single moms and acting like their child's dad, pointing out invisible attractions and steering them around other tourists. He walks up behind people with distinctive walks and imitates their movements and gestures, until they notice, and realize everyone is watching. He's actually kind of hilarious.

Walking away from Notre Dame toward L'hôtel de ville, there is a long line of souvenir shops, and a sandwich shop with quite a line (or rather, a giant mass of people kind of clumped around the display case. There isn't much order to it). I decide I want to check it out. Inside the shop is the most absurdly grand display of macarons and baked goods (palmiers the size of my torso!), there's a whole wall of freshly baked breads, and outside, hidden by the crowd of people, is a whole case of sandwiches. I notice that one says "vegetalien" and nearly start jumping up and down with excitement. Food I can eat! Real food! The place is called Huré, and I end up eating here almost every day I'm in Paris. The bread is ridiculously good, and the sandwich is stuffed full of artichoke hearts, sundried tomatoes, and rocket. Europeans may not eat kale, but they freaking love their rocket. Starving and happy, we make our way off the island and down some steps on the opposite side of the Seine. There's a lovely little park area with block benches, and I choose a spot right in the bright sunlight, a cool breeze blowing off the river, and eat my sandwich in view of the boats going by, waving back at the other tourists and their cameras. I want to do this every day for the rest of my life.
We explore around L'hôtel de ville and end up in the Chatelet/Les Halles area, which is kind of fantastic. The pedestrian only walkways lined with bars and cafes is how I imagined Paris. I realize, at some point, that it's getting late, and we hunt down the nearest metro station to head back to the hostel.

creepy pillars watch you around L'hôtel de ville

chevron walls!
The last time I had seen my mom was February of 2012. I went back home for a couple days under sad circumstances, and we had somehow managed to go over a year without seeing each other. The fact that we were finally meeting again in Paris made it even better. I was to meet her at the Gare du Nord, and decided to run what was supposed to be a quick errand on the way. I had run out of body lotion and was nearly out of toothpaste, so we trekked around until we found a drug store. I managed to convey "toothpaste" okay in French, but the women could not understand what I meant by lotion. It was almost comical, trying to explain in French and English while they answered me in both, and took me all around the whole store in search of what I wanted. I guess I was maybe a little too specific about what I needed, but still. In any case, they were extremely helpful and kind, and when I didn't immediately resort to English, they switched back to French, and even apologized to me before I left (with both the toothpaste and the lotion!) for not being able to speak English well.
Feeling accomplished, we headed to the train station to retrieve mom. It was kind of a novel experience, checking the arrivals board and waiting behind the line, watching all the trains arrive. It was a touch late (something I was getting used to), but it arrived, and there was mom, and now we were all in Paris and the next few days were going to be fantastic!

I was extremely excited to see her (as I usually am), and I had to recount to her all the things we had done since arriving this morning. We walked her back to the hostel to dump her things while I rambled on about needing to head back out to see everything we had just seen. She needed to get caught up!
We take the metro back in toward the Louvre, planning to do the same walk from earlier in the day. I'm very excited to surprise her with the view of the Eiffel Tower from the Louvre pyramids. The mall around the museum has closed, so we come out at a different spot and have to reorient just a bit. It's early evening now, and the sun is just starting to go down, bathing everything in a rose colored light, just as it should be in Paris. I point out the tower to her and watch her face do the same thing mine did. I can't say it enough, because it was just repeating in my head for at least the first 24 hours: "We're in Paris!"

I had already told her about the ferris wheel, and we had already decided we needed to ride it. It was free to wander into the fair, and not too pricey for the ride. Plus, it was the most lovely time of day for a ferris wheel ride! We walk up to get on, and I have my camera in one hand. The attendant holds out his hand and asks in French to see my camera, and then just reaches to take it out of my hand. He asks if I'd like him to take a photo of us, but I'm so alarmed by the fact that I am in the ferris wheel carriage and he is not, and he has my camera. He asks again in broken English and I realize he's actually being nice, and I'm being paranoid. He takes our picture and then turns the camera around and takes a picture of himself, laughing, and tells us to have a good time.

The view is ridiculous. Just amazing. You can see Sacre Coeur, Le Tour Eiffel, all of the Louvre, and it's just clear as far as you can see.

It's hard to not be happy when you're in Paris on a ferris wheel at dusk!

It's nearly full dark by the time we get off (it was well worth the money - much longer than any ferris wheel ride at home!), and we wander through the fair. Noah has to get some churros, and I narrowly escape buying a giant thing of cotton candy - I really just want to order it. It has the best name in French. But, I haven't had nearly enough real food in the last couple weeks to justify all that sugar. We walk further along than we had earlier in the day, finding another beautiful view of the tower. I had no idea it lit up all the way at night, and that it had a spotlight that makes it look just a little like one of the alien ships from War of the Worlds.
Captured the "holy god, that's good!" face.

Le barbe à papa!
I realize I had read that the metro doesn't run very late, and it is getting very late. We walk for a quite a time before happening upon a metro station, but manage to make it back to the hostel without incident, though maybe just a little hungry.
The next day, we have but one plan: to be Paris supertourists and go see the Eiffel Tower.

To be continued...

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