Monday, October 15, 2012

Solo in Paris

My first day in Paris

I sat at a small table, sipping my glass of Sancerre and writing in my journal as I waited for my lunch to arrive. This was my last day in Paris and the weather was gorgeous—sunny with temperatures ranging from high 60s to low 70s, but cool in the shade where I was sitting. Once again I was dining outdoors. Café culture is an integral part of Parisians’ daily lives and one in which I partook every day, sometimes more than once.

I wrote a few thoughts down on the page then looked up to watch the cars and pedestrians passing by as well as to observe diners seated near me. Smoking is no longer allowed inside restaurants and cafés, so smokers are banished to the outside tables. In Paris, I was much more tolerant of second-hand smoke than I ever am in the States. While it was annoying, I refused to let it mar my experience. However, I still find it disgusting and cringe-worthy when someone is smoking a cigarette while they are eating, which I witnessed often.

My waiter at Café Louise, located in the Saint-Gemain-des-Prés neighborhood, was young, cute, and attentive. I had meant to dine at Brasserie Lipp, a couple doors down, but accidentally ended up at Café Louis because I wasn’t paying attention—too busy absorbing all the surrounding sights.

The food was excellent. I had a salad of greens, cherry tomatoes, pear slices, toasted pine nuts, and blue cheese—and not merely blue cheese crumbles, but three quarter inch triangular slices of creamy blue cheese. My taste buds were in heaven.

From where I was dining, I could see the famous Café de Flore, known for its exceptional hot chocolate, and the legendary Les Deux Magots. I had wanted to have a café crème at Les Deux Magots later that day but failed to return to the area.

I finished my meal and took off to explore the Latin Quarter in the 5th arrondissement. After walking for a while, I decided to go for a boat ride. I had yet to take a boat tour up and down the Seine and felt my feet could use a rest. I strolled down to the river, bought a ticket for 13 euros, and found a seat on the top deck. For an hour, I relaxed, basking in the warmth of the sun as we cruised up and down the Seine.

I had arrived on Saturday, September 1, and a college friend I’d not been in touch with since our years at Indiana University was kind enough to meet me at the airport, help me get to the apartment, and serve as my guide the first day and a half. Bryan provided me with a great introduction to the City of Lights, and thereafter, I felt like a pro navigating my way through the city streets and the Métro.

In addition to being my guide, Bryan thought it in my best interest to be made aware of some of the local scams, which I witnessed several times during my trip. Of course, now that I was “in the know” about said schemes, when approached, in typical New Yorker fashion, I avoided eye contact—which was easy because I was wearing sunglasses—and put my hand up, palm facing them, implying ‘no thanks, don’t bother me,’ and strode right past.

One scam involves a ring. A scammer drops a ring on the ground and then stops an unsuspecting tourist (or tourists) who is walking by and says, “Excuse me, is this yours?” The scammer then hands it to the tourist and they take it to inspect it (and yes, many people actually take the ring). Knowing it’s not theirs, they then try to give it back to the scam artist. At that point, the scammer tries to extract money, even accusing the tourist(s) of stealing the ring if they do not give the scammer money.

View of the Musée D’Orsay from the Seine
 The morning of my Musée D’Orsay tour, as we waited outside the museum entrance for everyone to arrive, a couple from Florida decided to stand out in the sun, close to the sidewalk, because it was rather cool in the shade. As a young woman approached them, one of our guides saw what was about to transpire and bee-lined over to them to run interference, successfully too I am glad to report.

Inside the Musée D’Orsay - used to be a train station
Another scam is orchestrated in pairs. These men (I did not see any women attempting this one) approach tourists—yes, it’s always tourists because Parisians are quite familiar with these schemes. They begin a conversation and start braiding a bracelet around the person’s wrist. Once done, they expect payment for their creation. There are other schemes but these are the two I saw and encountered several times. The lesson learned: it’s good to know someone who is a local.

Bryan also introduced me to his friend Angela. She and her friend Deb joined us the evening of that first day for drinks and then dinner. Because of this introduction, I had dinner with Angela my last night in Paris. I met her at a restaurant/bar that a friend of hers and said friend’s husband opened a year earlier. Even though I was traveling solo and was alone a decent portion of the time, lonely I was not.

I signed up online for three group events prior to my August 31 departure for France. These events included a wine tasting, a tour of the Musée D’Orsay, and a small-group day tour of Versailles. During these events and excursions, I met some wonderful people who made my trip even more enjoyable.

Louvre et Pyramide

Another view of the Louvre from the Jardin du Tuileries

The wine tasting took place at ÔChateau, located a few blocks from the Louvre. This was conducted in English, and the attendees were from the United States, Canada, and Australia. Pierre, our sommelier, was fantastic—his presentation was the perfect mix of entertainment and education. We tasted six wines: one champagne, two whites, and three reds. These were no diminutive pours either. Every glass was quite liberally filled. There were a couple wines I did not finish and poured out, but we were all definitely feeling rather jovial afterward.

After the wine tasting w/ Pierre, our sommelier
  I ended up dining that evening with a family from Canada and a couple from Texas who had been sitting next to me during the wine tasting. It was immense fun and the conversation was lively, and it got livelier when the Canadians asked about the upcoming U.S. Presidential election. Guess who the Texans are supporting? I held my tongue as long as I could but had to get my two cents in, and I kept it very respectful. Thankfully, I had the Canadians on my side.

I was surprised how often American politics came up in conversation, and I was never the one introducing the topic. Political conversation arose during lunch the day of the Versailles tour and when I met author David Downie and a Florida couple with whom he had been having lunch prior to my arrival at the café.

I reached out to authors David Downie and John Baxter before my trip. I had read both of their books about Paris during the summer and thought if they had some time, it might be fun to meet and have them sign my books. I honestly didn’t expect a response from either one of them, but David emailed me and we were able to connect briefly on Tuesday, September 4, at 1:30 pm at L’Escale on Ile Saint-Louis (one of the small islands located in the Seine, across from Ile de la Cité where Notre-Dame is situated).

Notre-Dame on Ile de la Cité

Wednesday, September 5, was my tour to Versailles. Our guide, Habib, picked me up first then the other three couples on his roster. The first two couples were from Chicago, although they did not know each other, and the other couple was from Canada. They were all older than I but enjoyable companions. Habib was a brilliant tour guide, fluent in four languages—French, English, Arabic, and Italian—and about to embark on learning a fifth, Portuguese.

At the Entrance to the Palace of Versaillles
The enormous amount of information he shared with us was mind-numbing. I was impressed. A year of schooling was required for his particular job. In fact, I learned that all the guides at museums in France have to have advanced art history degrees and the proper certifications.

 At the Palace of Versailles we toured the King’s apartment, the Queen’s apartment, and the Hall of Mirrors. This is only a small area of the entire 67,000-square-meter palace complex that boasts 2,300 rooms, 2,153 windows, and 67 staircases. I was mesmerized by all of it—the grandness, the opulence, the decadence. I struggled to imagine what life must’ve been like residing inside these magnificent walls. Even harder was envisioning the upkeep and management required of the palace, which had to have been quite a feat given the number of people living there—the royals and their family, other nobles, clergymen, courtiers, dressers, readers, cooks, servants, etc. 

Hall of Mirrors
 Before lunch we were allowed to wander the gardens on our own. The gardens cover approximately 800 hectares of land with waterfalls, monuments, and statues erected throughout. One definitely does not have the time or the opportunity to see all of it. 

One view of the gardens from the Palace

After lunch, we were driven to the Grand Trianon, the Petit Trianon, and the Queen’s Hamlet. I was particularly charmed by the Queen’s Hamlet. This residence, though minuscule compared to the Palace of Versailles, is no small abode. The Queen’s Hamlet is part of the Petit Trianon, located within walking distance and is visible from certain areas of the Petit Trianon grounds. This was Marie Antoinette’s refuge from the hustle and bustle, the strict etiquette, and the political intrigue of Versailles. Much maligned and misunderstood, Marie Antoinette possessed a gentle, caring heart, and much of the slander and libel aimed at her from the press and the public, leading up to the French Revolution and until her execution day, was very hurtful and distressing to her.

The Queen's Hamlet

Rock pavilion & Belvedere pavilion - Petit Trianon grounds

French pavilion - Petit Trianon grounds
 Later that evening, upon returning to Paris, I enjoyed a lovely dinner with our guide, Habib. I had yet to see the Eiffel Tower lit up at night, so we had dinner at a café in the 7th close to the Eiffel Tower. After dinner, we walked over to the Champs de Mars, the park in front of the Tower where many Parisians hang out and/or picnic. This is the ideal place to lounge on a blanket and indulge in bread and cheese accompanied by a glass of wine, while watching the Eiffel Tower begin to glow as the sun sets. When it is finally dark, the structure sparkles for five minutes at the top of every hour. It’s quite the spectacle. I took some photos, but sadly, they failed to capture the illuminated beauty.

I explored other major sites too. On Saturday, Bryan and I had climbed the narrow, winding staircase inside L’Arc de Triomphe. I wasn’t sure I’d make it, but I did and without stopping. Once at the top and outside, the panoramic view of the city was spectacular, in particular the tree-lined Champs-Élysées. The city was radiant beneath clear blue skies as the sun shined brilliantly. Then on Sunday, Bryan and I hiked up some back roads of Montmarte to Sacré-Couer, which allowed me to see more of Montmartre as opposed to merely walking up the stairs would, plus it was great exercise. Atop the hill, we were greeted with a stunning view of not only the cathedral, but all of Paris below us. We sat there on the steps for a while and took it all in.

L'Arc de Triomphe



The Moulin Rouge
The only day that it was less than ideal weather-wise was Monday, September 3, when gray clouds blanketed the sky and it sprinkled a little. Before the wine tasting event that evening, I popped into the Musée de l’Orangerie, where I saw Claude Monet’s Water Lillies. Two huge oval-shaped rooms exhibited the grand canvases on which vibrant colors combined with subtle variations of light and shading mesmerize the viewer. The works surround the viewers, and made me feel that I was in the middle of a lake or pond.

After communing with Claude, I proceeded to the downstairs galleries to take in the other works of art from the mid 1800s to mid 1900s. These are the years in which my favorite works of art were produced. The downstairs galleries showcased more paintings by Monet as well as Edouard Manet, Pierre-August Renoir, Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, and a new artist I discovered, Chaïm Soutine, and many others.

Garçon d’honneur
 As I was stood looking at Soutine’s painting Garçon d’honneur, a nine or ten-years-old boy standing next to me asked his father three times, quite incredulously, “Why does he look so heinous?” I couldn’t help but giggle at the question and his father’s attempt to explain abstract art.

That Monday was a dreary day, but it worked out well because it forced me inside some of the time. I had wanted to visit the Musée de l’Orangerie but probably wouldn’t have had it not been drizzling outdoors that afternoon. I was inside for a little while at Notre Dame that morning and of course, later for the wine tasting and dinner. Even though the weather wasn’t ideal, I still walked everywhere, only pulling out my umbrella twice; but then I walked every day.

These daily walks were great exercise. Paris is a city made for walking and it is the best way, in my opinion, to see the city and explore the neighborhoods. Not only did I walk everywhere, only taking the Métro a few times—mainly after 9:00 pm if I had more than 30 minutes of walking to get back to the apartment—but I also utilized my French daily.

I would greet others with a friendly “bonjour’ and a “comment allez-vous?” I ordered in French at restaurants, always said “merci” for service or help and “au revoir” upon leaving. The French are friendly people, and I like to think they were both charmed and amused by my broken French and attempts to speak their language. Fortunately, most everyone with whom I came into contact spoke English too. The only difficulty I had was with the cab driver to the airport on Friday. When I paid him, he kept trying to give me change. Finally, I just shook my head when he tried to give it to me and merely said, “pour vous,” and pointed to him. His face lit up and he replied, “merci!”

I thought traveling alone would be scary, but I felt very safe in France. As is the case anywhere, you want to know where to avoid wandering around by yourself. I work and play in New York City, so I probably felt more secure than many people who reside in smaller cities or rural areas would when visiting Paris. Here I offer a few tips for traveling alone.

Jardin du Luxembourg

I suggest booking a few group events. You will inevitably meet like-minded people and may end up doing other things with them, as I did for dinner after the wine tasting and dinner with my guide after the Versailles tour. Ask friends if they have any connections in the city where you’ll be traveling and try to connect with them before you arrive to meet for coffee, a cocktail, or dinner.

However, be sure to leave yourself plenty of time to explore on your own and allow yourself to get a little lost; see some of the touristy sights, but also get off the beaten path. You never know what treasures you may stumble upon.

Gertrude Stein lived here
When I was walking back to the apartment from the Jardin du Luxembourg early Sunday evening, I decided to venture down Rue de Fleurus. While looking around, I saw a tiny sign, on the outside of a building across the street at 27 Rue de Fleurus. Upon closer examination, I discovered that this is where Gertrude Stein had lived from 1903 to 1938, first with her son, Leo, and then with Alice Toklas. As a comparative literature major in college and a lover of art and art history, I was thrilled to discover this tiny gem. Gertrude Stein was an American writer with a huge personality and love of art. She held salons at her home in Paris during the 1920s for writers and artists. She associated with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse, among many others.

Lastly, I would suggest if you want to feel more like a resident as opposed to a tourist, rent an apartment. I found a lovely little studio in a great location on The woman whose apartment I rented was fantastic. She was responsive from our first correspondence, and she provided me with much information about Paris, activities to do and sites to see, plus giving me excellent directions from the airport to the studio.

She was in New York while I was in Paris, so her mother was there to greet me, hand over the keys, and get me settled into the studio. She also met me on Friday morning at the apartment when I checked out. She was even kind enough to assist me in tracking down a cab, several streets from the apartment.

The neighborhood where I stayed was safe, as was the building. Two sets of codes were required to get in: one to access the courtyard, the second to enter the building. The studio cost no more than what I would’ve paid for a hotel room. I did extensive hotel pricing last spring before a friend suggested to me. I was quite happy to discover that I could rent my own place at a comparable hotel price, and in many instances, for much less.

I imagined that my trip to Paris would be fantastic, and it was. Treasured memories and photos are in my possession, and September is a beautiful month to be in Paris. It was worth every penny spent. I look forward to going back.

A view from a café in the 6th one afternoon
Friends and family have asked: What was my favorite part of the trip? That is so hard to say, but if I had to narrow it to just one, it was every afternoon when I would take a break at a café, sitting outdoors while I sipped wine or coffee, wrote in my journal, and watched the world go by—just being a Parisian.

Where am I headed next? Well, perhaps to London the summer of 2013 with a friend and her family, so it won’t be a solo trip. However, I do plan to travel solo again at some point, somewhere… Still, I will always have Paris. Jusqu'à la prochaine fois!

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