Paris. The quintessential romantic location for your milestone birthdays, surprise proposals, and pretty much any other special occasion you can think of. I have now been to Paris twice, once as an eight year old, and again as an adult, and both experiences were completely different. Both included the Eiffel Tower and a lot of cigarettes, but my takeaways were night and day.
I'll start by telling you about my first trip to Paris. I was eight, and my mom and I went to visit our friends in Belgium. My mom spent most of her life as a nanny, and when I was born she was a live in for a family with a child and twins on the way. They were my first friends in life, so when we got the chance to visit them in Belgium, after they moved there temporarily for a job, we jumped at it. Although we were staying in Brussels we decided to take a two-night trip to Paris via the Eurorail. My friends and I walked the aisles of the train for almost two hours with anxious anticipation, and when we finally arrived at Gare du Nord station we were ready to hit the ground running all the way to the Eiffel Tower. Unfortunately, that plan was put on hold when one of the adults was pick-pocketed shortly after arriving, and we had to file a police report and stand around for what seemed like forever before we were released on our own recognizance.
We initially had plans to see the tower, go to Notre Dame, see the Mona Lisa, and the next day, go to Disneyland Paris. We did everything we planned to do, but there were a few more bumps in the road than anticipated. The first bump was all the smoking. Clearly, research on second hand smoke hadn't been done yet, and all four of us kids knew we hated the smell, so we decided to play a game to pass the time. Whenever we would see someone discard of their still burning cigarette on the ground, we would stomp it out! Simple, right? Wrong. It felt like we were stomping FOREVER there were so many people just tossing their cigarettes to the ground. Once we finally made our way over the Seine River and up to the Eiffel Tower we had been walking, and stomping out cigarettes, for what seemed like an hour. When we finally got our turn to walk, and ride the elevator, up to the top of the tower, the journey was totally worth the wait. We could see all over Paris; the rivers, the museums, the Seine, the cathedrals, the water...OH NO, my eight year old bladder just wouldn't cooperate with all the water I kept seeing from the top, I had to find a bathroom IMMEDIATELY!! Unfortunately, there was no time to wait for the elevator, so my mom and I ran down what felt like 30 flights of stairs to get to the first platform with a bathroom, and like all women's rooms, it had a mile long line. Luckily I was a cute kid, because they let me jump the line.
My next trip to Paris, 25 years later, was much less eventful, but I will tell you I refused to enter the Eiffel Tower because of the fear of a chance repeat of my last venture to the top. And this time I wasn't as cute, so no one would have let me skip the line. My venture up the tower wasn't the only memory I kept in the back of my mind, I also held tight to my passport and made several color copies just in case it went missing (it didn't). I was unsure of what to expect with my adult trip to Paris. I knew I wanted to go back and form new memories, but I also held a fear of not knowing the language and had currency conversion anxiety. To prepare, I downloaded the French package on Google Translate, picked up euros and pounds, and I signed up for a new bank account with Capital One Bank, one of the only cards that won't charge you for international purchases.
Side Note: Although there are a number of credit cards that won't charge you, Capital One is one of the only banks I know that doesn't charge no matter if it is a credit card or a debit card, and I prefer to budget my purchases by using cash/debit instead of an open limit credit card.
While I didn't have any run ins with pick pockets or bladder issues, I did notice that despite all the research and health information readily available, Parisians still smoked just as much as I remembered, maybe even more so. Since I am allergic to smoke of any kind (including incense) it was hard for me to do some of the things I really wanted to, like sip wine outside a cafe, while eating the largest cheese board on the menu and people watching. Although I didn't have my ultimate Parisian cheese board, I did still get to eat INSIDE the cafe's.
The food was great...mostly. Our first night, after a total of 8 hours of flights, and a full day out cruising the Seine and sightseeing, we decided to visit a restaurant, Café de Luna, near our hotel in Montmartre (the area that is home to Moulin Rouge and Paris' red light district, as well as just a really hip area of town). This had to be the worst dining experience I had in Paris. Not only were we seated across from the bar that had empty and half consumed glasses of alcohol strewn across it, and servers adding more every few minutes, but the waiter argued with me about what I ordered when he misunderstood my pointing at an item on the menu and brought me the wrong item (I ordered a filet, medium, what I got was a gray side of beef, medium well, and clearly de-thawed prior to blackening it on a flat top). Everyone else's food was great, but I was just tired, hungry, and ready to head back to our hotel...after we picked up a Nutella crepe on the way to the Hotel Ibis Paris Montmartre.
Our hotel met our needs, but when traveling to Europe you must remember that their buildings tend to be much older, and smaller, than ours; and not all hotels are going to have the same amenities as a US hotel. Although we struggled at first with the realization that we needed a room key inserted into a slot to turn the lights on, we got the hang of it, although out of our four nights in the hotel we probably forgot the card at least twice. Our room had a window that looked down onto a very small courtyard, a doorless closet, a desk and chair, two electrical outlets, and a bathroom with a shower that had half a glass divider to deter the water from drenching the laminate flooring. We also, for no extra charge, got very loud and unfriendly sounding birds screaming outside our window at 4 am nightly! Yes, I'm sure we could have closed our window, but our vent wasn't working properly, and the room was sweltering; and to be honest, between the birds and overcoming the language barrier to get them to fix our vent, we chose the birds.
The next day we took a train to Brussels (I will tell you all about that day later) before heading back to Paris for my birthday dinner. This time, we were more thorough with our decision, and looked up reviews for nearby restaurants. We chose Rouge Bis, directly across from the famed Moulin Rouge. Although it was around 9:30 pm, prime dinnertime in Paris, our party of five was seated within five minutes, and served by a great server who spoke fluent English -- despite most of us wanting to practice the French we had picked up over the two days we had already been there. I can't even remember our meals, but I know it was really delicious and the wine was even better, but maybe that's why I don't remember.
The next day was our last full day in Paris, and my wife and I decided to sleep in before meeting the rest of the group for lunch near Notre Dame Cathedral. We easily got an Uber (we have T-Mobile, so data is included in our plan, even internationally) and met at a cafe just outside of the cathedral, Café Panis on Quai de Montabello. After a delicious lunch, I had a roasted Camembert appetizer served with roasted potatoes and an onion jam, we headed to Notre Dame for a quick walk through before walking down Rue du Cloître Notre Dame, over the Pont Saint-Louis bridge that was bustling with street performers and families, and through a quaint little area that was reminiscent of the shops and cobblestone streets in older parts of DC's Georgetown neighborhood. The street was full of people walking and stopping in shops that seemed to specialize in all types of artistry. Cars could drive down the street, but only one did the whole time we were there. We decided that we would leave the area to discover Sacré-Cœur, a basilica located on the top of a hill in Montmartre with 180 degree views of the city below, including the easily identifiable Eiffel Tower (don't worry, we did visit the tower, just stayed on the ground level). The sun was beginning to set as we took in the performers, the views, and the worshipers coming to attend 6 pm service, and the sunset views were amazing. Once the sun set, we set off down Rue du Mont-Cenis, a little road behind the basilica filled with artists painting and sculpting in front of us, bakery's, souvenir shops, and, of course, a Starbucks.
This walk down a Parisian street on a winter night may seem a bit uneventful, but to be completely honest, it was this walk that made me fall in love with the city. As I was walking, we turned a corner and saw a restaurant with a windmill standing directly in front of us. Why this restaurant struck me so much, I will never know, but at that moment, as I saw the building with the sunsetting behind it and the windmill siting stagnant in the warm winter air I just knew that this city had stolen a piece of my heart. Once we slowly ambled our way to our hotel to quickly change for dinner, we decided to try another restaurant we found from reviews. L'Aller Retour, in the 3rd arrondissement, was a small restaurant housed in a row house on a quiet street. We almost thought we were in the wrong place, but we heard the sounds of happy patrons from the windows as we walked up to the small door. The restaurant was set up like a house, with a bar to your right as you walk in, tables on the left of the first floor, a small living room in the back, and six tables of varying sizes upstairs on the second floor. We ate upstairs and marveled at our servers ability to run up and down the dark steep steps with trays of piping hot food in his arms. One thing you will quickly realize in Paris is that restaurants frown upon cooking meet over medium (except for that nasty restaurant the first night), so we all ordered our steaks, and duck at the recommended temperature -- medium rare. I wasn't concerned, I often eat medium rare meat, and grew up knowing that anything over medium on a steak was a serious offense, but when my medium rare steak came out rare I was a bit shocked. Although I have tried it before, I have never been a fan of rare meat, but I had also seen the last few nights that Parisian medium rare was much rarer than what us Americans would expect. The steak also came with frites (french fries), a mayonnaise dipping sauce, their signature sauce (a spicier mayonnaise dipping sauce), and a roasted garlic spinach puree that I have tried to replicate numerous times since my return with no avail. All five of us loved our meals, were stuffed, and walked it off after a quick midnight stroll around the Eiffel Tower (I told you I went!) before heading to our hotel for a quick sleep before our morning train to London.
Overall, my weekend in Paris was amazing! I can't wait to go back, and even more, I can't wait to take you with me. Although food was hit or miss, the people tended to be very friendly and would try to speak to us in English (many assumed we were from Great Brittan before we started speaking with our thick American accents). The history and sites were overwhelming, in the best way possible, and the drivers...lets just say, don't rent a car in Paris, you will never get where you're going, or you'll get hit in the process. If you have a smoke sensitivity think twice about visiting Paris, or, if you're like me, just stock up on allergy pills and risk it!
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