And here we are.. The final leg of my European travels. I’m finally getting around to transposing this part of the trip from my journal and onto the web
two three months later. Let’s go!
We had about half of a day in La Rochelle before we hopped on our train back to Poitiers. Most of the time was spent wandering the street market and making some last minute purchases at the little shops throughout downtown.
We spent the night in Poitiers to collect our things and gather our bearings before making our way to Paris Friday evening. The train ride was long, or seemingly so with our anticipation to get there. Maneuvering through the Montparnasse station with three hefty bags of luggage was less than ideal, but we didn’t have to go far to hop on the metro and get to our hotel in the 11th arrondissement.
Our hotel was centered near Place de la République, a fairly swanky section of Paris, north of the Seine River. It’s one of the more popular residential districts of the city, with a great, young night life scene. The hotel was easily accessible from the métro stop and after getting a bit turned around trying to find it, we unloaded our bags in our room and were out to seek a sight of one of the world’s most distinguishable buildings: the Eiffel Tower.
As you may recall from the very beginning of my trip, when I arrived in Paris, my first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower was over a line of trees, riding on the bus into the city. I never got a full look of the thing, but it still struck me. So, as you could imagine, making my way down the streets of Paris towards le Tour Eiffel, I was filled with so much anticipation that I was nearly certain I would collapse on the ground before ever making it there. Instead of searching off into the distance for the golden tip of the tower, I studied the shops we passed, long since closed for the day. Bulgari, Chanel, Cartier, I kid you not, were what we happened to pass. We’d clearly stumbled into a pretty expensive part of Paris. It was totally dreamlike to wander down the street, admiring our surroundings.
Somehow, despite my head floating happily among the clouds with little regard to how I was getting to where I needed to be, we made it to the tower. It was absolutely stunning. So incredible. There truly are no words that could ever describe it with justice. Unless you’ve been there, you will never know.
The base of the tower is admirably expansive. I guess you never fully absorb how massive something is through film and photos. It’s not until you’re standing underneath the center of a structure like that when you realize just how much work went into creating something so incredible.
By the time we got to the Tower, it had started to rain, but we didn’t mind for a second. After gawking for what could easily have been half an hour, we crossed the street to grab a crêpe with Nutella and banana. Could we be more French? Probably… but it felt like the right food choice for that particular location.
We snacked and made our way under the Tower towards Champs de Mars, the grassy lawn that extends from the Eiffel Tower towards École Militaire. As we turned around to look back at the Tower, it began to sparkle. We learned that the Tower glitters every hour for ten minutes after dusk. It was such a sight to see. Absolutely magical!
Once our adrenaline began to run down, the cold rain started to bother us, so we hopped back on the métro to our hotel and had a happy night’s sleep.
The following morning was the start to a beautiful Saturday. As we got ourselves up and ready, the sounds of Parisians starting their days echoed up to our window that looked over a cute little part of the 11th arrondissement.
Our plan of action for the day was to see as much as possible. We got started fairly early to navigate through the crazy métro tunnels so we could wander around the Seine.
After grabbing coffee and a pain au chocolat, we walked along the river, admiring the scenery. We stumbled upon the Pont des Arts bridge, more commonly known as the Padlock Bridge. There are dozens of these types of bridges all over Europe, where couples bring a signed lock to clamp onto the bridge then throw the key into the river below. The romantic gesture is pretty cheesy in my book, but you wouldn’t believe how many locks covered that bridge. It was awesome.
After wandering around a bit more, we found the Louvre! It was a no-brainer that we wanted to go in and lucky me, I got in for free with my student visa. We spent nearly 4 hours wandering through the wings of the museum. The collection of art there is impeccable (obviously) and I felt my brain turning to mush after absorbing so much history. My favorite section was Napoleon’s Apartments, covered in royal velvet upholstery and gold filigree. An absolutely stunning collection of furniture…
Of course, we saved the best for last and made our way through the Italian paintings to see the Mona Lisa. The crowd in front of the portrait was thick with photo-taking tourists, but I just wanted to stand in front of it and stare at it forever. Can you imagine? The most famous painting in existence and I’m looking right at it. It was unbelievable, to say the least. Unfortunately, no one else in the exhibit hall appreciated my lack-of-movement and I was quickly (and quite rudely) shoved off to the side. I know I’m one of those crazy gotta-photograph-everything-you-see kinds of people, but I really do love just looking and appreciating something. I was a bit irked that the urgency to see the Mona Lisa seemed, to everyone else, to take a picture and then leave.. I have some good thoughts on this issue, but I’ll save that for another blog post.
When we finally made our way through the entire museum and we were certain we hadn’t missed seeing anything, we snapped a couple cheesy photos outside.
From the Louvre, we crossed the river and ended up in a cute and (surprisingly) quiet residential area. We stopped by a Carrefour market and grabbed some snacks, then made our way back to the Seine to sit along the water and enjoy a quick lunch. I know they say the water in the Seine is disgustingly filthy, but it doesn’t appear that way. I’d probably not be too quick to jump in for a swim (I’m pretty sure people get very ill from doing so.) but it was nice sitting by the water, watching the boat tours pass by and waving at the tourists.
After lunch, we walked West along the river through street art vendors and past the Musée d’Orsay. The weather by the afternoon was ideal: warm and sunny, but crisp. Perfect Parisian weather for wandering through the streets.
Eventually, we came upon the Notre Dame. The cathedral sits upon the île de la Cité, an actual island at the center of the Seine. The crowds were thick outside of the cathedral and the line to the entrance stretched across the courtyard and to the street. The queue moved quickly, however, and it wasn’t too long until we were standing inside the gorgeous Notre Dame. The interior is just as impressive as the outer façade. The cathedral is massive. It was completely cramped with tourists the entire route through, even with all of the allotted room. We snaked past the pews to get a look at one of the most famous aspects of Notre Dame: the organ. The current organ was placed inside the cathedral in the 18th century and is one of the best working organs to this day. It’s giant and takes up a great portion of the inside of the cathedral. It’s truly impressive.
We realized later on that we could have paid a couple bucks to go up into the towers, but we were satisfied with seeing only ground level and we were growing pretty tired from starting our day so early.
We spent a bit of time walking around the gardens of the cathedral and then made our way back to our hotel for a bit of a siesta… which turned into upwards of 4 hours of napping. We were much more exhausted than we thought.
When we woke up, it was nearly dark and we were hungry. We walked down Boulevard Voltaire going southeast down the 11th arrondissement and found a small restaurant to grab a bite to eat. Our waiter was very friendly, as was the case with most Parisians despite the stereotype. Although we tried to speak only in French, he continued to speak English with us and helped us choose a couple great dishes for dinner. I ordered the cannelloni, which is basically a lasagna. It was really tasty for something so simple.
After dinner, we headed back over towards the Eiffel Tower to meet up with a few girls from my program in Angers. We took a different métro route and got a gorgeous view of the Tower.
We walked down towards École Militaire and found the girls on a section of the lawn. We joined them in sipping on wine and snacking on cookies. It was a great end to the day.
The following morning, we walked over to the famous cimetière du Père Lachaise. After grabbing coffee and a crêpe from a patisserie across the street, we snagged a map and marked our stops in the 110 acre cemetery. The famous grave sites were obvious and I knew my top picks (Piaf, Wilde, Morrison) but we found a couple spots that we thought were worthy of seeing.
The cemetery is stunning all-around. The trees were a welcome shelter from the heat of the sun and added a bit of eeriness with the shadows they casted down upon the stone pathways. The entire expanse is a maze of labeled roads, usually leading to intersections of even more paths and sometimes bringing wanderers to a dead-end. Thankfully, we had that map on hand or we would have easily spent the entire day just trying to find our way out.
Some of our notable stops included the grave site of comic playwright Molière, pianist Chopin, and the lovers Abelard and Heloise. My personal favorite and the primary reason for my visit to Père Lachaise was Oscar Wilde’s grave. I had planned on visiting this grave before I’d even made my trip to over to Europe. I even bought a bold colored lipstick so that I could leave an imprint of my smooch on the stone site. When we eventually maneuvered our way through the cemetery and to Wilde’s site, I was so disappointed to discover that there was a plexiglass box surrounding the statue. A small sign read that the glass had been placed to discourage vandalism of the site, claiming that the French government-owned the property and that visitors should respect the dead.
I could easily go on the longest rant on why this is an absolutely absurd means to discourage vandals, IF you could even call them that. The act of kissing Wilde’s tomb became a trend in 1990 and is, in my opinion, one of the truest forms of appreciation one can display for the dead. Who cares about the germs that may or may not linger? I have no doubt that our friend Oscar is absolutely basking in the fact that countless visitors travel all the way to Paris to visit his grave and leave a kiss. I understand the expense of having to clean the tomb year after year, each wash wearing away yet another layer of stone, but I have difficulty in comprehending why it’s such an issue to have lipstick marks on the site in the first place. I think it’s ridiculous and the glass partition looks tacky. And if the glass wall wasn’t enough of a sign, they’ve placed a barricade surrounding the entire grave. Absolutely ridiculous…
Anyways! After a bit of brooding and complaining in disbelief, I spent a good half hour admiring the grave and reading the notes that admirers have left for Oscar. So many proclamations of love and appreciation, in so many different languages. It was really impacting. I even wrote my own little message and left it inside the barricade.
Despite the mild satisfaction of leaving a little piece of myself with OW, I still wanted to stick it to the man and kiss that damn partition. So I did. I climbed through the gate and smooched that dirty piece of glass as hard as I could. And you know what? Not a single person who had gathered to pay their respects to Oscar even cared. So take that French government!
Onto the next! Our final goal for the day was to get to Montmartre to see the Moulin Rouge. It was absolutely mandatory that I checked that destination off my list. I’ve loved the Baz Luhrmann film since it’s been out of theaters (I was 11 years old when it came out and there’s no way my parents would have let me see it at that age…) and have lusted over seeing that red windmill in person ever since. It’s my reflexive “favorite movie” response and I was absolutely giddy over finally viewing it. Granted, it’s quite different looking than what the film depicts. I was expecting that though and was not disappointed. It’s still an iconic cabaret with show seats running well over 100 euro. I didn’t have that kind of money to drop, but I think I’ll make that a goal the next time I’m in Paris.
While in Montmartre, I was also on a mission to find van Gogh’s apartment. I knew the street, but not the number, so we wandered pretty aimlessly through the hills of the neighborhood for far too long to no avail. We even asked some locals and they had no idea where it was either. We did, however, see le Moulin de la Galette, the subject of one of van Gogh’s most famous paintings. That was pretty neat.
We spent the remainder of the evening wandering through the shops in Montmartre. There were street performers everywhere. A wholly artistic community of people. despite being overrun by tourists. It’s easily the Brooklyn of Paris and it’s really just amazing.
Before hopping back on the métro, we grabbed a quick bite from a small street stand. It was nice to rest and people-watch for a bit.
We made our way back to the hotel so I could pack up my things for the next morning’s departure. We rested a bit and then decided to eat (again) to commemorate my last night in Europe.
We found a busier section of la République with a welcoming little restaurant with enough people to convince us it was decent food (But is there really such a thing as bad food in Paris? I think not.)
Once again, we were lucky enough to have an incredibly charming waiter, who treated us to appetizers to accompany our drinks. We decided that dessert was the best choice for us and splurged on crème brulée and this magical chocolatey goodness that I still drool over thinking about.
The crème brulée was perfect in every single aspect. I didn’t think that a custard could ever taste so good, but I swear it was made by gods. Just look at that gorgeous brulée!
The chocolate orgasm-in-your-mouth was a chocolate ice cream with a chocolate mouse covered in a chocolate fudge sauce, piled with homemade whipped cream (because the French don’t do that canned cream crap). It was seriously indescribable. Anthony Bourdain would have had a field day with this thing… It almost made me cry.
Even after devouring practically every bite of our treats, we didn’t want to rush off. We reminisced about our adventures together and what the future would bring. It was perfectly romantically French and the night couldn’t have been more perfect. (Although, some Vespa driving Parisian men would have made it all the better…)
We fell asleep quite happily and soundly and I was up early the next morning to get on my way to Charles de Gaulle airport. It was back to lugging far too much luggage all by myself through métro tunnels and up stairways. It was mildly frustrating, but I was so anxious to get to the airport to start my journey home that I really didn’t mind.
Before checking into my flight, I indulged in some duty-free goodies. I snagged some cheese, wine and macaroons to bring back to my mother and to add to the sardines I got in La Rochelle and the mini bottles of Cointreau I got at the distillery in Angers. I was a French-gift-bearing American ready to return back to the United States after two months after traveling as far as my bank account would let me.
And I made it home safely. It’s been over three months since I left Europe and I have, for the most part, reverted back to my old schedule as a student at the University of Oregon. I go to class, I go to work, I try to maintain a social life without falling behind in any of my commitments. My life is, strangely enough, back to normal.
It was weird getting back to the States at first. Even though you expect them to, no one really cares much to listen to you talk about your time abroad. People kind of forget that you went anywhere at all. I was warned of that before I ever left, but it’s a serious contributor to re-entry shock. It makes total sense. You leave your home and go and experience all these incredible things and whether or not you recognize it immediately, you change. You absolutely change. And then you come home, back to your friends and family. They didn’t go anywhere, and if they did, they probably weren’t with you. If they changed, they changed in a different way, at a different rate, than you did. So you feel disconnected from everyone because no one understands what you did or what you saw. But then you branch out and you start doing more because you want to surround yourself with people who get you. Maybe they studied abroad too, or maybe they’re just different types of people. I found myself doing that when I got back to Oregon, and it’s been really really awesome.
Although I was more than ready to come back home, it was still difficult to leave Europe. Circumstance cut my time abroad short and I was a little resentful. I try to be a firm believer that everything happens for a reason and I have hope that the trip I’d originally planned on just wasn’t meant to be because there’s something better I’m meant to do with my time. I’m three weeks out from the date that I would have returned from France if things had gone according to plan and I can’t say that I’ve quite found out what the trade-off is. I do know that if I’d stayed abroad, I wouldn’t be graduating in June with the rest of my class. I also would have missed out on saying goodbye to one of my best college friends as she makes her way on to bigger and better things. Every decision has consequences and benefits. There is good and bad in both worlds, but following your gut makes for a clearer conscience and less regret in my book.
I’m sorry I couldn’t give you all the full six months of travel like I’d initially promised in my first entry of this adventure, but I hope you found something in these posts that made you want to travel somewhere new. I had an epic journey in Europe, but I like learning about the hidden treasures of where I live. There’s so much to be discovered in hometowns, you just have to go look for it.
Thank you all for reading. :]
Until next time…