Voila!

Some friends of mine are planning a visit to Paris (that’s the one in France, not the one in Kentucky — I know, I know, common mistake). They asked me for some tips and I was going to forward my Paris travelogue to them when, much to my astonishment, I realized I never wrote one! So come join me on a trip down memory lane (much cheaper than an actual trip to the E.U.).

March 15, 2002
Lil Baji and I arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport around 7:30 pm and with surprisingly little hassle with respect to luggage, customs, and cabs, we checked into our little Left Bank hotel – The Residence Monge – by 8:30 pm. After surveying our room, which was somewhat larger than we expected after hearing the cautionary tales of how miniscule French accommodations were, we ventured out to find a place to eat. We took note of the location of various pharmacies (for future purchases of creamy lotions and pleasing potions), the Pantheon (yes, there is one in Rome and there is one in Paris), and ended up near the metro Cardinal Lemoine at a nice little Italian restaurant with huge corner windows (all the better for people watching).

We were nervous at first after watching the waiter rudely correct a bunch of boorish Americans sitting next to us aggressively demanding the check (“Eh? What? What iz zees you are sayeeing? Ze bill? Non. Not ze bill. Addition.”). When he approached us, we smiled widely and ordered our meal quietly so as not to invite his wrath. To our relief, he was very friendly and even made a suggestion or two so that our meal was all that more pleasant. He drew a laugh out of us when he asked us the single question that people all over the world have asked us for years: “Are you twins?”. Pleased with the nice restaurant experience, we rounded off the night with a brisk walk around our new neighborhood, the Latin Quarter, and a sound sleep on soft, floral sheets.

March 16, 2002
Got up earlier than anticipated and sloppily learned how to bathe in a teeny tiny tub; with no shower door or curtain to hold the splash in, it took some careful maneuvering and slow, cautious movements to avoid flooding the entire bathroom. We took the metro (what a tangled web!) from Rue Monge to Bin Hakim near the Eiffel Tower to meet up with our friends who were also visiting Paris. We shared a delicious, simple breakfast at a close-by patisserie: hot, flaky brioche, freshly squeezed OJ, and flavorful, rich strawberry yogurt (spoon not provided but readily pilfer-able at the cafes). The French sure know their pastries and dairy!

After sipping some cafe lattes at one of the ubiquitous Parisian cafes, we studied the convoluted metro map and managed to find our way to Place de la Madeline for a full day of shopping (hey, window-shopping counts as shopping) at Cartier (shiny baubles galore), Gucci (skinny, weak-looking French guards keeping a watchful eye on the expensive items), Prada (skinny, snooty French salesgirls keeping a disinterested eye on the patrons), and Hermes (skinny, sneering clients keeping a darting, head-to-toe eye on their rivals). After downing cafe au laits near Chanel, we browsed through the incredibly pricey gourmet food shops Fauchon and Hediard. After a stroll along the gray Seine river, we warmed ourselves with mochas at Maxim’s (next door to Minim’s). After imbibing coffee in various incarnations all day long, we paused at the swank, sumptuous Hotel de Crillon (single room runs about $650 a night) to use their polished, gleaming facilities. Relieved in style, we continued our exploration of the Champs Elysees from Place de la Concorde (where we saw these guys really getting into the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day) to the Arc de Triomph. In no hurry, we paused at window displays, avoided stepping in any crotte de chien, and loitered for a while to watch an old man attempt to park his gargantuan Mercedes on the sidewalk (the same one we were standing on) and shoving and bumping lesser cars along the way. Poor little Smart Cars.

To avoid the drizzling rain, we ducked into and wandered around the glamorous George V Four Seasons Hotel as though we were contemplating dropping $800 on a “standard rate” room. Around 11 pm, our legs were wobbly and our tummies were grumbly. We meandered around aimlessly (is there any other way to meander?) for a while and ended up having a great meal at the nearby Italian restaurant Findi. It was close to midnight by the time we finished dinner. We did not feel like standing in the long lines for a taxi on the bustling, busy Champs Elysees, so we made a mad dash for the metro to catch the last train home. One yellow to pink connection later, we were back at Place Monge by 1 am, kicked up our weary feet, and slept the sleep of the dead.

March 17, 2002
Sunday morning le petit dejeuner of cheese omelets and cafe creme at a local bar was followed by idle roaming through the nearby open-air farmer’s market at Place Monge. The fruits and vegetables were all so healthy, aromatic, and pleasantly displayed — a far cry from the ghetto grocery stores we were used to. We decided to see what eye-candy the Parisian museums had to offer and so navigated our way down, through, and up the metro to the Musee d’Orsay where we stood in a long line for 45 minutes before we were finally allowed inside. Once a train station and a hotel and set along the banks of the Seine, the museum itself alone is worthy of some oohs and ahhs. I admired the wide glass awnings at the entrance, and the enormous clock at the end of one of the wings, and the lofty ceilings and long walls adorned with carvings of stone roses, before I even laid eyes on any of the art.
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We began our self-guided tour with the upper level to view the impressionists Monet, Manet, Rodin, and crew. After a quick lunch at the museum’s cafe, we continued our self-imposed art-appreciation day by going through each of the exhibits until we finally deemed ourselves saturated with paintings, sculptures, objets d’art. Oh, how I envied Van Gogh’s lazy models napping in “The Siesta“.

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With a family as large as ours, we were bound to have a relative or two expecting a visit; this trip was no exception. We had a cousin in Lyon who was anticipating our arrival the next day and so we headed towards the main train station to book our seats. Although we are well-seasoned travelers, Gare de Lyon stumped us and we could not figure out how to get train tickets, when the trains departed and arrived, or where the metro ended and the RER began. After much hand-wringing, back-tracking, and broken French, we finally managed to secure our tickets.

We continued our confused, convoluted cavorting through Paris by attempting to find a flea-market on the outskirts of town. We arrived at what we thought was the Marche aux Puces de Montreuil in the 20th arrondissement, but upon seeing the nearly desolate sidewalks lined only with second-hand sneakers and cheap, dingy t-shirts, we quickly turned around and returned to the more familiar and comfortable Left Bank. We spent the evening braving the wind atop the Eiffel Tower and had a spectacular view of the glittering city at night. The cold started to seep into our bones and so dinner consisted of hot French fries, savory French onion soup, and fresh French crepes filled with Nutella. When in France . . .

March 18, 2002
Off to Lyon! Well, more specifically, Bourg en Bresse, a quaint (read ‘little’) town 60 km north of Lyon in the Rhone-Alpes region. Actually, more precisely, Chateau Gaillard, a little (read ‘diminutive’) village in which one of my cousins had settled down. In order to travel lightly, we packed one small overnight bag each and arranged for the hotel to store the rest of our luggage until we returned. We joined the crush of Monday morning commuters in the metro maze and climbed aboard the TGV, France’s high-speed train. Sleek (electrically powered steel and aluminum . . . shiny!), swift (speeds of 300 kmh or 186 mph although it broke a world record when it reached 515.3 kmh or 320.2 mph in 1990), and a sweet, comfortable ride.

It was a brilliant, sunny day and the rolling green hills and pastures flecked with white, wooly sheep sped by in a blur. The train smoothly pulled into the station right on time for us to make our connection. We had some snacks, stood patiently on our platform, and watched the passengers mill about the station. When our departure time neared, we approached a conductor to confirm which train would take us to Bourge en Bress. By the time we made ourselves understood, the junky train we were standing next to started to pull away. By the time the conductor made himself understood, we realized that that was our train. Oops.

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Luckily, another train was available and eventually, we arrived at Gare de Part Dieu. My cousin picked us up, brought us to her charming house surrounded by lush fields and monster-sized forsythia, and fed us a proper Pakistan lunch which gave our stomachs a little break from all of the rich creams in which we had been indulging. Imagine that, curry to settle the stomach. When her gorgeous daughters (complete with large, liquid eyes and French pouts even when smiling) came home from school, we took a little excursion to St. Denis Tower, an ancient, dilapidated stone structure overlooking the village. The sunny day had given way to a wet dusk and eventually, the rain drove us back into the car for a quick tour of the town before returning home. The rest of the evening was spent playing games, coloring, watching old home movies, and catching up in 1/3 English, 1/3 French, and 1/3 Punjabi.

When night fell, it really fell. It was pitch black outside with no street lights, no car lights, and no store lights to pierce the darkness. The room we were given to sleep in had thick, wooden shutters that would effectively block any overeager, early morning light that might dare to wake us up early. No traffic noises, no neighbors voices, no nothing. It was almost too dark and too quiet to sleep, but we made a valiant effort and finally fell into the arms of Morpheus. Vive le sommeil!

March 19, 2002
If we had had enough time, we would have hopped, skipped and jumped to nearby Mont Blanc. As it was, we had to return to Paris early in the morning or else lose an entire day in the city and perhaps our hotel room. In a mere two hours, we were back in rainy Paris. The hotel management rather curtly informed us that we were going to be assigned a different room, this time without a balcony or a view of the street. Hmph!

We went to a nice brasserie near the Cardinal Lemoine metro and supped on crisp salads and hot goat cheese sandwiches (note: all French sandwiches must be lavishly buttered, even if the only filling between the slabs of bread is cheese). I love the fresh baguettes, but the crunchy, golden crust with its jagged edges does quite a number on the tender roof of my mouth at times. Hmmm. Maybe it is because I was cramming the delicious sammich into my mouth so quickly though. Luckily, I had some creamy cafe viennois (heavy cream with a dash of chocolate, poured over a two-shot espresso, topped with fresh whipped cream – just a fancy name for a mocha + dollop of whipped cream, I guess) to soothe my ragged flesh. As we sat digesting our meal and people-watching, we made this observation: Parisians own about 200,000 dogs and of those breeds (the majority of which could be tucked under one’s fashionably-sleeved arm), there is a disproportionate amount of West Highland White Terriers prancing and mincing about. We started to point out all of the Westies that passed by, but the sheer number overwhelmed us and tuckered us out.

In deference to the gloomy, wet weather, most of the city’s inhabitants decided to stay indoors. We, however, decided to go underground. The dark skies and stinging rain had put us in a dreary state of mind and so, to match our macabre mood, we decided to check out the Catacombes. Faced with the rather gruesome problem of overflowing cemeteries in the late 1700s, Parisians decided to preserve and relocate the bones of about six million folks to the tunnels of the unused quarries beneath the city. The Catacombes also came in handy during WWII when the French Resistance shared the space with the dearly departed and used the tunnels as their headquarters.

With no line in which to wait, we were immediately welcomed into the Catacombes. We descended a great many stone steps to arrive at a labyrinth of skull and bones. There were some interesting decorating techniques employed. Stacks upon stacks of bones that lined the walls were interrupted by varying patterns of skulls usually organized in a horizontal stripe, but occasionally arranged in the shape of a heart, a cross or, most intriguingly, a house (found out later it was an obelisk). Ghoulish as the job may be to assemble human remains in an efficient but aesthetically pleasing manner, someone seemed to have had fun doing it.

We continued to traverse the 1.6 km length of the dimly-lit passages of the underground graveyard. At one point, Lil Baji and I were the only people in an offshoot of the tunnel and when we held still, we could hear nothing but our own breathing. Our own heavy, increasingly rapid, freaking-us-out breathing. We quickly took our flesh-covered bones out of the dank tunnels and emerged into the fresh, damp air.

(wow, this entry is getting really long and we did a lot that day. i’ll cut y’all some slack and end it here, to be continued tomorrow)

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Our next stop on our self-created Goth tour was Cathedral de Notre Dame de Paris. The stormy weather provided a perfect backdrop for viewing the famous cathedral. Beautiful rose windows, vicious-looking gargoyles, and an assortment of statues of kings, priests, and saints in various poses: the most attention-grabbing one was of St. Denis holding his own decapitated head in his hands. Having already communed with the dead, we passed on visiting the Archeological Crypt beneath the cathedral and stuck to wandering around the cathedral and ambling around its gardens.

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A walk along the Seine became an accidental literary tour when we made a wrong turn and ended up seeing points of interest only made interesting through their links to Hemingway, Kerouac, and Sartre. We reached the heart of St. Germain des Pres and parked our tired bodies at a corner table at Cafe de Flore. To chase the chill away, we ordered a pot of hot chocolate. Little did we know at the time what a heavenly, mouth-watering, eyes-roll-back-in-pleasure indulgence we were going to get. Sure, the Italians have cornered the market on excellent coffee – Illy rules the roost. Granted, the Spaniards know their way around sweet liquid treats – the incredibly thick, satiny, dark, sinfully rich churros con chocolate at Chocolateria San Gines in Madrid is intense and matchless. But Cafe de Flore’s stylish decor and decadent chocolate concoctions . . . Mon Dieu!

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Refreshed and now on a sugar high, we hailed a cab to take us to the Arc de Triomph. When traffic ground to a halt to allow President Jacques Chirac to have the streets all to himself after an interview downtown, we jumped out of the cab and hoofed it from Haussman Blvd to the Champs Elysees. The blowing rain made a mockery of my umbrella and the only use I could make out of it was to wrap it up and use it as an elongated pointer to indicate the items I found worthy of attention: the four relief panels that decorated the Arc, the hundreds of figures that were carved around the sides, and the pocket-sized cars stuck on the twelve streets that led to it. Shivering and wet, we sought sanctuary at Diep, one of the few Chinese restaurants that I actually enjoyed. Normally, I don’t like Chinese food unless it is made at home or made in China. But the lean caramelized ginger chicken, well-prepared stir-fried rice, and crispy spring rolls made me reassess my prejudice and redirect it towards American-made Chinese food. Back at ‘home’, belly full, legs exhausted, and mind long off of the sugar buzz, I hit the lights and was asleep before the room got dark.

March 20, 2002
Sandwiches and coffee in hand, we took the train (the RER line C4, “V” train; yeah, we finally figured out the system) to the Versailles-Rive Gauche station. Twenty minutes later, we were walking up the long path that led to the Chateau de Versailles. From simple hunting lodge to the ornate, gigantic palace of the Sun King, the Chateau was home to the Apartment of the Planets, the famous Hall of Mirrors, and Marie Antoinette’s Suite where she was kickin’ it old style in her crib until the Revolutionary peeps got all up in her grill, rolled her up to Paris, put the smack down and replaced the iced out bling around her neck with a guillotine blade. We lingered in the garden eating our sandwiches, gazed over the vast expanse of greenery, fountains, and ponds, and dodged the clumps of tour groups clogging up the palace. Did you know that Louis XV had his own Chocolate Recipe? He did.

We returned to Paris in the afternoon and browsed around some stores. My friend Coco once told me that the Japanese are so obsessed with Louis Vuitton products (they account for an estimated one-third of LV’s worldwide sales) that they willingly pay up to 50% higher than retail prices for LV handbags in Japan and that there are special rules for Japanese tourists purchasing LV goods overseas. Apparently, the Japanese stores would often run out of stock because the demand was so high and so, some entrepreneurs would go overseas, purchase the merchandise at retail, and re-sell them in Japan for a much higher price. Getting wind of this scheme, LV stores began limiting the number of goods sold to Japanese tourists and requiring them to provide passport information before any transaction could be completed so that the store could maintain a database to ensure that the goods were for personal use rather than arbitrage. Coco regaled me with a story about witnessing a scruffy-looking Parisian teen purchasing three LV handbags from the store, meeting some Japanese tourists at the corner, and delivering the goods in exchange for a little commission. The LV salesclerk suspected something like this was afoot and followed the kid outside. When he saw what was going down, he chased after the culprits, but to no avail. At first, I thought Coco was pulling my leg. But when I saw the line of Japanese tourists wrapped around the Champs-Elysees LV store and scattered throughout inside, buzzing with excitement and arms full of leather goods, I sent her a mental apology for disbelieving her. Turns out, she was right.

Lesson in sociology over, we went to the small, rickety, tucked away Musee Maillol for a cool exhibition of Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters and the rough drafts that preceded the final works of art. The exhibit was only open for a limited time and I was very pleased that we got a chance to check it out. Afterwards, like all addicts, we hit Cafe de Flore again. Caught unawares by a brief burst of sunshine for what seemed to be the first time during our entire trip, we were reminded of how blue the sky could be and, with our useless umbrellas tucked away, managed to get an unobstructed view of the neighborhood’s beautiful old buildings.

Walk, browse, walk, dinner, walk, and finally get to sleep before midnight in preparation for tomorrow’s full-on shopping spree.

March 21, 2002
The gray, blustery morning began with a circuit around the neighborhood and followed the narrow streets that led to Le Pantheon, where we (belatedly) celebrated International Women’s Day.
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Continuing along the ever-widening paths, we arrived at Jardins (Gardens) du Luxembourg. Although it was still too early for the flowers to bloom, too chilly for the children to ride the Shetland ponies, and too wet to sit on the sprawling lawns, we parked ourselves on a bench under the chestnut groves and enjoyed the view all the same.

We eased into our marathon shopping-spree by sniffing various shampoos (mmmm. . . flowery Klorane’s Peony Shampoo!) and testing various lotions (ahhhh . . . Evian’s hydrating moisturizers) before getting great deals at the local pharmacy for products that would have been elevated to “imported” status in the U.S. and therefore two to five times more expensive. Credit cards warmed up, we hit the big stores and shopped. And shopped. And burned our mouths with some lava-like cocoa hidden under some deceivingly cool whipped cream and then continued to shop. These were the good old days when the dollar was a little stronger and the prices were a little better. We were also taking advantage of the coupon book that the bigger hotels offer to the tourists to encourage shopping. Granted, we were not guests of any of those bigger hotels, but they certainly didn’t mind when we helped ourselves to their free maps and coupon books spread out in the lobby and we certainly didn’t bring it to their attention.

By late afternoon, we were simultaneously giddy and fatigued. At one point, our friend Balu was purchasing some fancy drinking glasses and, tired and still in the habit of repeating any French phrase that is given to her, engaged in the following conversation with the saleslady:

Balu: Parlez-vous anglais?
SL: Oui.
Balu: Oui. Ok, I would like to buy these, please.
SL: Credit card, please? Merci.
Balu: Merci.
(SL proceeded to wrap the delicate items individually and then place each one in a bag which was tied up with a flourish)
SL: Voila.
Balu (nodding her head in agreement): Voila!

Maybe it was one of those “location jokes” (you had to be there) or maybe we were light-headed from skipping lunch, but that just killed us. We were laughing with her and then just outright at her from that moment on. In fact, we are still laughing today.

March 22, 2002
Friday! Jummah! We thought we’d pay a visit to the largest mosque in Paris which just happened to be right in our neighborhood. The mosque was lovely, serene, and beautiful. Apparently, Islam is France’s second largest faith (five million strong!), which came as a surprise to me considering the latest news about the potential French ban on headscarves in state schools (although the latest latest news is that ‘discreet bandanas’ may be allowed). Back to the mosque. Built from 1922 to 1926 in recognition of the sacrifice and suffering that Muslims (mostly North African) experienced protecting France during WWI, the complex included a huge Persian-carpeted prayer room, a gorgeously tiled courtyard with a marble fountain in the center, a tranquil, sunken garden, and a tea house and a hammam, neither of which were open.

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Continuing the theme, our next stop was at the Arab World Institute or Institute du Monde Arabe (IMA) which was developed to symbolize the partnership between France and twenty-one Arab countries. The exterior looks a lot like a Borg ship because its chilling northern facade is looming and glassy and its soaring southern facade is decorated with 240 diaphragms, steel jaws that open and close according to the strength of the sun to let in enough light and heat without harming delicate items housed in the library or the museum. The diaphragms are intended to resemble Arabic mushrabiyah (wooden lattice-work window screens) but really just look scary to me. From floor to floor, we took a tour of the extensive exhibits, many of them loaned by Syria and Tunisia.

After an extended nap back in our room, we decided to take a walking tour of Marais, a trendy, fashionable district in Paris whose residents are known as Bobos, short for bohemian bourgeois . . . isn’t that cute. Map in hand, we meandered through the streets, marveled at the many majestic mansions, and made our way to the Musee Picasso. Picasso’s collection of over 200 paintings, over 150 sculptures, and over 3000 ceramics, engravings and drawing demanded a large venue. After Picasso’s death, most of his collection went to the French state. And so, the Hotel Sale (named after the profession of its first owner, a salt tax collector) became the Picasso Museum in 1985. We went from room to room, up and down the stairs, and saw most of the collection which was laid out chronologically, from simple Impressionistic drawings to more abstract paintings to kooky Cubist sketches. My favorite exhibit was the La Guenon et Son Petit (Baboon and her baby) sculpture:

First of all, monkey! Second of all, I loved the fact that the materials Picasso used in the composition consisted of materials cobbled together from household items and his son’s toys: A large pottery jar (belly), jug handles (shoulders and ears), pieces of wood (legs) and best of all, two model toy cars — one car for the head with the windshield faming the eyes, the hood becoming the nose, the grill shaping the mouth; and one car for the lower part of the face with the trunk and rear fender forming the jaw. A few months later, this sculpture sold for $6,719,500. Shoulda snatched it when I had the chance!

March 23, 2002
Tres triste, Saturday was our last day in Paris. We bought some fresh fruit from an outdoor weekend market for breakfast and surveyed our neighborhood one last time. Naturally, we could not leave the city without a jaunt through the Louvre Museum. Taking the advice offered by Lonely Planet, we had purchased our tickets to the Louvre from Fnac at Place de la Bastille the night before so by the time we reached the museum, we could skate right in. Upon entering the complex, the first sights that greeted us were the Mini-Me version of the Arc de Triomphe and the famous Pyramide du Louvre. The controversial pyramid designed by I. M. Pei is nearly dwarfed by the Renaissance era Sully, Denon, and Richelieu Wings that embrace the courtyard. But once inside the museum, all eyes are drawn heavenward to the towering window panes; the patrons tilt their heads back and gawk open-mouthed at the bright light and blazing glass overhead, like awed children mesmerized by shiny, glittery objects. Or maybe it was just me.

We spent about half of the day trekking from wing to wing, century to century. Venus de Milo, check. Winged Victory of Samothrace, check. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (who, in true prima donna form, had her very own room, was encased in bulletproof glass, and, at 77 centimeters high, was much smaller in real life than one would imagine), check. Tourists, myself included, flocked to these famous works of art and clustered around them like buzzing bees dancing around their queen. Or, in this case, three queens. Not surprisingly, the Islamic Art section was not teeming with visitors, so we were able to absorb and appreciate the art at a leisurely pace.

The Egyptian antiquities section was pretty extensive but a far cry from the selection in the insanely crowded museum in Cairo where you are overwhelmed by the sheer number of items. There, you feel almost as though you are just dodging the seemingly carelessly tossed together exhibits and rummaging around the jam-packed collection in someone’s dusty, musty, unventilated attic. Here, the exhibits are well-tended to, prettily displayed, and nicely spaced out in an orderly manner. Plus, you can breathe. Bravo, Le Louvre!

Starved, we had lunch at the closest brasserie we could find and indulged in our favorite dish: fromage et pain. We hit up the nearby Monoprix to load up on last-minute goodies and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening walking along the Seine River, dining at Diep again, and cramming all of our belongings into our straining, groaning luggage. So there you have it, folks: my and Lil Baji’s trip to France.

Voila!

(Voila!)

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2 responses to “Voila!

  1. Well! This was long and impressive! How do you remember all this so many years later?? It was fun to accompany you guys around rainy Paris 🙂

  2. i WISH my memory was so good! these were written back when i went to these places. i’m just uploading them now b/c some were only in email form and some were from another blog which may disappear. glad you like them!

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