As Kim Thompson and I discovered, the only disadvantage to booking discount tickets for a 6 a.m. train to Paris is that the last train to Waterloo is at around midnight. And guess what? Waterloo closes. We therefore spent a most miserable night in the shut-down station with only a small group of French students and scattered homeless persons to keep us company.
“He’s only an old man—we can take him,” Kim said in response to the frequent approaches of an obviously schizophrenic elderly gentleman. After careful consideration, I have decided to scratch “Homeless Person” off my list of possible career options. Never have I felt myself such a complete amateur. For example, while the bonafide street dwellers were wise enough to know that a newspaper or flattened box placed between one’s body and the floor lessens the cold, Kim and I lay shivering on the tile, unable to sleep because we could not stop our teeth from chattering. Homelessness requires a greater degree of subtlety, practicality, and logic than I am prepared for. I shall take the easy way out and get a degree.
Fortunately, the sun always rises. The ticket windows opened, and in no time (no counting the past 6 hours) we were on our way. I dozed slightly on the train, but when we exited the Chunnel I came to full attention. Feeling an itch on the inside of my skin that I mistakenly took to be my artistic impulse, I got out my notebook and jotted: “My first impression of France, seen in the light of a morning sky straining for day but not having yet achieved it, was one of unexpected horror. A bleak and snow-dusted landscape, ashen gray in the pre-dawn, lay cadaverishly pale and still outside the—” I here broke off and thought better of it. The expression of feeling is one thing; to sound like Thoreau and T.S. Eliot playing pat-a-cake is ridiculous. Kim commented, “It reminds me of a Millet painting.”
“It’s very poetic,” I responded, “But you can tell they had World War I here.” And that was, more or less, it—the initial bleakness of the countryside alarmed me, but it also possessed a sense of determined industry and resilience which filled me with instant respect.
To skip, for brevity’s sake, the mundanities of customs, currency conversion, etc., we arrived without much incident at our hostel in the Marais quarter. A trip to the Champs Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe (covered—just our luck—with unsightly scaffolding) filled the remainder of the day, and evening found Kim and me at the Church of Saint Gervais – Saint Protais. Attending an ornate mass—especially in a language one does not understand—after over 24 sleepless hours is a profoundly interesting experience. With its candlelight, incense, chanting, and bowing, the ceremony proved once and for all that LSD is a unneeded substance. To top it all off, when Kim and I opened what we thought was the door out (to our credit, it was right next to and looked exactly like the real door out), we were confronted with the sight of at least a dozen monks and priests removing their robes. We can only hope that our crimson faces and stuttered English conveyed our apologies.
The next day began with a confused attempt to meet up with Sara Marie Massee. Once we all found each other, we headed to the Louvre and remained there for hours. For the record, the Mona Lisa looks exactly like the billion and one reproductions of her, only she is surrounded by numerous frazzled and quasi-hostile docents. Not that the Louvre isn’t worth visiting, because it is. For example, few reproductions feature the back of the Venus de Milo, which is even more magnificent than the front. Lunch was at Angelina’s chocolate shop, where we added an uncouth American flair to the elegant setting by my dropping a fork, Sara Marie’s spilling a glass of water, and Kim’s surreptitiously indulgent licking of the hot chocolate pitcher’s inside rim.
The Eiffel Tower was our first stop the next morning. It was foggy. But somehow there is great fun in standing on the deck halfway up, squinting, pointing and muttering, “Is that Notre Dame or an exhaust cloud?” The Musee de Cluny was infinitely more rewarding; the Unicorn Tapestries are stunning in person, and scattered with extraordinary depictions of rabbits. Well, and other things, too, but I was particularly impressed with the rabbits. Dinner was crepes, sleep was refreshing, and Tuesday was the best day of all.
Scurvy days are extra scurvy, on the 6th of Janu-ervy….hooray for the Feast of Fools! Okay, so there wasn’t one—but we were still at Notre Dame on the day. A trip to Sainte Chapelle and a photo shoot outside the Palace of Justice preceeded our trip to the cathedral itself. For a very small price one can go up into the bell tower. Was I going to miss this? Not a chance. Four hundred spiral stone stairs are nothing. I confess that by the time we reached the top, my legs were quivering involuntarily—but I barely noticed. What a view! And putting Kim’s backpack under my coat and hobbling around the bell-tower making Quasimodo noises was too priceless for words. “I yam deaf, becoss of deese bayulls.” Lip smack. Lip smack. I wonder if anyone nearby spoke English.
That night we dined in style at the Nicholas Flamel, a restaurant housed in the famed alchemist’s actual residence. Granted, 48 euro is perhaps a bit much to pay for one meal, but how often does one have dinner in Paris? And there’s something adulteratedly euphoric about eating veal which only increases with the price. Barbaric? Perhaps. Tasty? Most definitely. Wednesday consisted of a trip to Versailles. I have one thing to say: nobody needs that much gold, or quite so many decorative hedges. No wonder the French had a revolution. On Thursday we flitted about the Opera Garnier in masks and long black coats. The Musee d’Orsay consumed the next five hours of our day, and we topped it all off with a trip to a bar.
I can only say: the scary stuff may not be in it anymore, but absinthe is still pretty awesome as it is. We got it complete with flaming sugar cube. Sara Marie and I proceeded drink ours straight, which seemed to disturb the bartender, who bustled over in his tight mismatched clothing. “Absinthe—you never have?” he piped shrilly, twitching like a lizard on an electric wire. “Like this!” He proceeded to dilute it for us. I would not recommend this to anyone who aspires to absinthe-drinking. Straight, it tastes like liquorice-flavored lightning. Diluted, more like a soggy box of Good n’ Plenties.
How does one cram a week in Paris into 1200 words? It can’t quite happen. There was also the tea museum, the catacombs, Sacre Coeur, and more. I’ve come to the conclusion that everyone should go to Paris at least once. Tips: bring a camera for unexpected glimpses of stripping priests. And a flattened box would be handy, too. You know. Just in case.