It has been twenty two years since I last visited Paris. Unfortunately I didn’t write much about that visit except in this entry from December, 2000.
I was a student then wrapping up my six months studying French in Lyon and Besançon. My fellow students are now mothers and fathers with teenage children living the future we dreamt about hoping our studies would benefit. The chapter of our lives written twenty years ago was very influential for each of us and even though much time has passed the bonds of friendship remain strong through that shared experience.
Thus for me, this trip was about renewing those bonds of friendship and remembering a previous time in my life. The trip was not conceived with this aim however. Instead it was due to the daughter of my colleague spending a summer in France and he wanted to go visit. My initial plan was to head directly to Spain but since my colleague was going there I decided it would be both possible and a good idea to do both.
We both work in the travel industry and thus can fly free only paying the taxes and fees on other airlines. There was a non-stop from SFO to CDG on Air France and space enough for the both of us.
Upon arriving I quickly realized how much time had passed since my previous visit. Twenty years ago I relied on a book called “Let’s Go” that was the bible of anyone traveling through Europe. This time it was our cell phones which was indispensable. Google Maps and Uber helped us get to where we were going. Individual airline apps and a travel industry website helped us arrange the flights. Where once we needed to rely on hotel concierge for tickets, we were able to purchase through our phones as well. Without these things I would have been incredibly lost.
One extremely valuable tool from twenty years ago persevered however and that was my ability to speak French. Being able to speak the language paved the way to a smooth experience and helped tremendously. People say that Parisians are rude but I found that is only in the case of those who do not speak French. I found the Parisians to be incredibly helpful, kind and willing to assist if spoken to in French. My colleague also discovered that they can be quite rude if only spoken to in English.
Upon arrival we used the Uber app to hail a ride to our hotel. It was then that my French got its first workout as our driver did not speak English. He was from Tunisia and I was very glad when he told me he understood me perfectly.
We arrived at our hotel – Hôtel Windsor Opéra – and the owner was very kind. We quickly learned that hotels in Paris do not have very big rooms and the buildings were quite old. Paris itself is ancient and thus it makes sense so are the buildings. We Americans are accustomed to brand new buildings where space is quite available. Not so in Paris. This was no big deal as we were very excited to be there.
We had some time until my colleague’s daughter was to arrive so we found a small cafe, ordered up chardonnay and a charcuterie plate for lunch. It was a very Parisian thing to do as the cafes are filled with patrons for lunch, many drinking wine which we just don’t normally do in America. His daughter arrived, we had another glass of wine and then it was off to our first stop, the Eiffel tower.
It was extremely hot that day, well over 100 degrees but luckily I had my handkerchief to keep the sweat at bay. We needed to stand in line for about thirty minutes to obtain the tickets and then made our way to the top of the tower.
Afterwards it was time for dinner so we went to the Bastille area where there were a number of excellent restaurants recommended to me by my friend Rennie. I met Rennie as a student in Spain over twenty years ago and he had lived for many years in Paris. Unfortunately he now lives in Poland so we couldn’t meet up but his recommendations were fantastic. We settled on Chez Paul for dinner and had plenty of food, wine and even a nice conversation with the table next to us.
The next morning it was off to the Camps-Élysées, Arc de Triomphe and Versailles but not before breakfast. We found a small cafe/restaurant called Marie Belle . We had the set breakfast and my colleague learned that a Cafe American, is not like your usual Starbucks coffee. He ended up pulling up a picture of milk and showing it to the young boy – must have been a son of the owner – to help him make his coffee a bit more “American.”
On the Camps-Elysèes I had one mission and that was to buy a really nice pair of sunglasses – my Oakleys were not going to cut it in Paris. I had expected a bit more of a refined and sophisticated shopping experience but see that even Paris and the Champs-Elysèes were hit hard by COVID. I ended up buying a pair of Prada sunglasses from a place called Solaris which is a store you’d find anywhere else in the world.
Then we went up to the top of the Arc de Triomphe which is where I had been with my sister on a beautiful December night when the boulevard trees were decorated with Christmas lights. This time it was 100 degrees but still nice to visit.
Afterwards we started to make our way to Versailles and stopped for lunch at Café Templier. This was one of my favorite experiences in Paris as although it was just a simple cafe, the plat du jour was incredibly delicious and pared with a Chardonnay and conversation with the friendly owners made this a special moment.
I enjoyed Versailles but as with most tourist sites I like to take my time, go slowly and understand what I’m looking at. Our trip through did seem a bit rushed but I can always go through again using virtual reality and Wikipedia. I can also now say I’ve actually been to Versailles. It was over 100 degrees outside and I wasn’t too keen on spending an hour with that temperature in the gardens so I sat in a breezy spot with a coke and waited for them.
That evening we first went to another recommended place, L’Avant Comptoir du Marché but it was too crowded and we couldn’t get a table. So we walked a block or so and settled on Le Montverdi which had a nice table inside but with window/doors so almost outside. It was here that we would wait for my friend Ning who I studied with 20 years ago in Besançon. She only speaks French and Chinese with just a little English. It was great to catch up but after our meal my colleague and daughter decided to go back home. Ning and I continued to chat for another hour before almost closing the place down.
I almost ran into trouble getting back to the hotel. First, we learned that the metro was having problems and thus closed. Secondly, it was impossible to get a taxi so Ning decided to go by bus. Once I saw her off I had to decide if I would go to an Irish pub I discovered near the restaurant. However, there was also the matter of getting back to the hotel and my phone was quickly running out of battery. If that had happened I would have been in big trouble since I would neither know how to get back to the hotel nor be able to try and summon some type of transportation.
Therefore, I went to the bus stop and figured out the route. I had a minor heart attack when the bus took a route I didn’t expect and again my phone was dying. Luckily it seemed to just be an alternate route and got me to where I needed to go. I did have a brief image of a romantic Paris night like you see in the movies as we passed the Louvre. Although unlike the movies there didn’t seem to be anyone out at all.
The bus made it to my stop and I had about 10% power, just enough needed for Google Maps to guide me to the hotel. On the way I noticed a very lively block of restaurants and bars that were still going strong even at 1:00 AM. European life sure is different to that we have in America. In America I know plenty of bars but those are usually full of drunken single people, not those still enjoying a meal at that hour.
The following day I parted with my friends for the day as they were going to further tourist areas such as Notre Dame and I was going to meet Ning and her daughter. We had reserved tickets for L’Atelier des Lumières and their showing, Cezanne / Kandinsky. I didn’t know what to expect and but quickly learned this is exactly the type of thing one should do in Paris. It is a departure from the usual tourist sites and something that Parisians themselves do.
In my life art has never had much of an influence but during this event I learned what I had been missing. I was always terrible in art class and never understood it. However, after this event I had the urge to grab my Wacom and try painting on my computer again.
We still had plenty of the day left so we went to a small cafe called La Comète and had lunch. It was late in the day and so we didn’t go meet my colleague and daughter as intended but instead went to Chatelet Les Halles to see the large metro stop/shopping area which reminded me very much of Tokyo. Then we said our goodbyes.
Back at the hotel we were all quite exhausted from three non-stop days of activities and so didn’t even rally for a late dinner/drinks.
The following day I was off to Spain to continue the European adventure.
As for my thoughts on Paris overall, it helped me remember my love for living overseas. It is such an international city and I was very glad my French was still quite good for basic conversation. For the past decade and a half Europe had been missing as Japan usually takes my time and money every year. Japan is great but it was Europe that sparked the fascination with the world.