OK. This morning I am forcing myself to sit down and write, something I have not done in awhile, except for answering e-mails every day of course. Today's topic will be my trip to Paris which I am still recovering from. It all began a few weeks ago....
Anyone who has a teenager knows that family holidays can be stress filled catastrophes even with the best of planning. Amarandi had a 5 day thanksgiving holiday and though I wanted to go to Crete, we assumed correctly that
she would have no interest in going anywhere in Greece with us. But when I suggested Paris she showed
some interest, enough to send me to the computer looking for flights and affordable hotels. Luckily enough Aegean Airways had just started service to Paris in November
and a round trip ticket from Athens cost about 180 euros. Then I went to my Paris website (www.aparisguide.com) and spent 3 days looking for the right hotel. Amarandi refuses to share a room with us so we needed a double and a single which I found on the booking page of my own site that I do as a partnership with booking.com. It was the Hotel Europe St Severin right off Blvd St Michel and for 5 nights cost 1100 euros. (Plus I got a 60 euro commission by booking off my
own site). So we called Loula and she sent
John, one of George the Famous Taxi Driver's alternate drivers, the one everyone loves because he speaks like he just got off the plane from New Jersey, who drove us to the airport and after a very comfortable 3 hour flight in a brand new Aegean Airbus Jet we were in Paris.
Paris was cold. I was OK with it because my jacket kept me warm and I think I am more tolerant of it, but Amarandi was freezing and dismayed at the thought of being in such a cold place for the next 5 days.
The hotel was great. I recommend it. It was located on a cobbled pedestrian street, among many other cobbled
pedestrian streets in a neighborhood of small restaurants, fast food places, cafes, bars and tourist shops, sort of the Psiri-Plaka of Paris. It was also the neighborhood
with a great many Greek restaurants, some with delicious looking displays of food in the window. One had a whole, leg of lamb turning on a spit while the fats and juices dripped down into a big pan of roasting potatoes. It was the most effective advertising I had ever seen. Here I had just stepped off a flight from Athens and I was ready to walk into a Greek restaurant when I had all the bistros and brasseries of the most food oriented city in the world. Of course Andrea would not hear of it even though the first
person I met upon walking out of the hotel was named Fotis and spoke to me in Greek, which to me was some kind of sign. We wandered up Blvd St Michel to the area of the Sorbonne and found the most simple cafe-brasserie we could and attempted to make ourselves understood with our limited French which consisted of useful phrases like I Love You and Please, Thank You and Good day. It did not help that we had gone to a place which had nobody that spoke English and a menu that
was only in French. We were so hopeless tourists, a humbling state to be in when you are used to giving advice to tourists. Amarandi rolled her eyes with our attempts to speak French, using the limited dictionary of our Lonely Planet Paris Encounter (I did not even find the section on the different kinds of coffee until I sat down to write this in Athens because it was buried in the section on Belleville which we did not even visit until our last night.) As the sun set it got colder and Amarandi went to her hotel
room where she spent most of the trip, watching French Television and IMing her friends about how boring Paris is. Andrea and I went to Shakespeare and Company Bookstore where there were more good books per square foot than perhaps anywhere in the world. For those who don't know, this bookstore is to Paris as City Lights is to San Francisco and many of the same writers have visited or in the case of Paris even slept on the floor of the library upstairs where over 50 books have been written and researched,
including William Burroughs Naked Lunch.
Our first night we ate at a small Bistro called Le Lutin dans le Javulin on rue Git-le-Coeur, a tiny street that runs between Rue Andre-des-Arts and the river, about a block from the giant statue of St Michel killing the dragon,
called Place de St Michel. There was one other couple there and the young waiter had
plenty of time to explain what everything was in English. It was a very nice dinner for a first night in Paris and the fact that Amarandi refused to leave the hotel with us
made it easier to fumble along, making mistakes in French, without her getting mad at us because when we spoke English to the waiter we did so with a French accent. I thought I was just trying to speak slowly so people could understand but apparently I was compensating for the fact that I did not speak French by pretending I was French by speaking English with a French accent. Before we had gone to the restaurant we had a glass of wine in the Cafe St-Michel and I was looking in the Lonely Planet Guidebook
and then put it off the table. "Can you take the book off the table and put it in your pocket?" Andrea asked me. "Its like a sign that says you are a tourist".
"But I am a tourist! Why do I have to hide it?"
Its funny how humbling an experience it is to be in a country where your level of communication is about the same as a caveman. In Greece I can get around just fine. My Greek may be lousy but I am pretty confident that I can understand and be understood in most situations. But in Paris my confidence is non-existent and even ordering a coffee made me anxious. I guess other people feel the same because while the cafes all had plenty of empty tables there were lines
at all the Starbucks
and nowhere to sit. But the old story that Parisians refuse to speak English and look down their noses at you if you speak bad French seemed like nonsense to me. We would always attempt to order in French and the waiters would always come to our rescue in English. So after awhile it was kind of a game and really after the first night we pretty much knew what we were eating before we ordered it.
As I often do in a new place I woke up very early, around sunrise, and feeling like any time spent in bed is a waste of time I got dressed and hit the streets. I walked across the across the bridge to the Isle de la Cite
which is the oldest part of Paris and besides the Cathedral of Notre Dame also has many of the massive public
buildings including the headquarters of the Police. While standing on the Rue De Letuce (Letucia is the ancient name of Paris) two small cars came from opposite
directions and met in front of the police station and several heavily armed masked men jumped out of the cars escorting a very large man into the building. I was tempted to take a picture but decided that the risks outweighed the benefits and that really there are not many sections that would be appropriate for such a photo in aparisguide.com so I just sort of took it in and then moved on to explore the island and the Ile St-Louis across the next bridge as well as
the Hotel d Ville, the giant neo-Renaissance
town hall of Paris.
When the girls woke up we had breakfast at the Brasserie De La Fontaine, being helped through the ordering process by a very friendly and professional waiter. This place was a tobac cafe which is sort of like a cross between
a cafe and a Greek periptero (kiosk). It has a bar for drinks or coffee, a few tables indoors
and out and sells cigarettes, cigars and some of the things you would find in a periptero in Athens. But unlike Greece, Paris passed a smoking ban so if you
want to smoke a cigarette with your coffee, as many people do, you sit outside in a space that is usually heated by big gas heaters, and sometimes enclosed in plastic. Personally I would have rather been outside with the smokers because the heaters really work well and I like to watch the people walk by. But Andrea was so pleased to be in cafes where she was not the only one without a cigarette that it did not seem fair to go out of my way to sit with the smokers. But Andrea only has another year of suffering
to go because in 2010 Greece will have to enforce the same smoking ban in cafes and restaurants which should create a lot of available seats.
Andrea was taking Amarandi shopping for her birthday in the Marais which is this shopping, drinking and eating area of small streets across the river from us. We wandered around and they looked in clothing shops while I looked
at people, food and buildings and took photos. We started by walking up Blvd de Sebastopol
and stopping at what used to be the central market of Paris which was knocked down to create the world's strangest looking mall that looked like some multidimensional caterpillar,
outdone only by the Centre Pompidou, the worlds strangest looking modern art museum, a cross between NY's Shea Stadium and a recurring nightmare of an unbalanced plumber. Both buildings were impressive really for their lack of charm in a city where charm resides full time. But neither really interested me because it was a pretty nice day, not too cold and not raining so I did not want to waste it indoors, either
looking at art or shopping
for clothes. So when
the girls went into the first clothing store that Amarandi had researched on the net and put on her list, I took off to explore on my own. I wandered the small streets of the Marais, looking at the various Jewish shops on Rue des Rosiers and after sitting in the sun in the middle of the Place des Vosges, a large square surrounded by a series of 17th Century mansions, all connected as if they are one big arcaded building, and included, besides the home and museum of Victor Hugo, a
number of galleries and fancy and not-so-fancy restaurants. I was looking for the Picasso Museum and kept seeing signs but it never materialized.
Somehow I ended up at the Bastille or the Place de la Bastille since the actual building was torn down to inaugurate the French Revolution on July 14th 1789. Now it is a big traffic circle with a giant bronze column topped
by a statue of Lady Liberty. There are several cafes surrounding the monument and even
more interesting is the park area that overlooks the boats on the Port de Plaisance
de Paris Arsenal which is a canal that branches off the river Seine. What makes it so interesting is that though the canal appears to end at the Bastille on the maps, it actually continues underground and emerges at Rue de Faubourg de Temple about a mile away. The canal for some odd reason was covered to create a park area that runs next to Blvd Richard Lenoir. Where the canal begins again it becomes the Canal St Martins and besides the tours that run from one end to the other there are shops, parks, cafes,
even clubs on several boats docked there. You can see boats using the locks to get from one level to the next and there is even a Holiday Inn Express right on the water at the Bassin de la Villette. Eventually I ended up at the Place de la Republique and managed to drag my sore body and my tired feet all the way down Ru du Temple and back to the Ile de Cite where I met Andrea and Amarandi in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. We were using our cell phones to send SMS messages
to each other the whole trip so we were always able to find a central meeting point. From there we went to the Cafe Panis on Square Rue Viviani, a great place to people watch both inside and out.
Amarandi's first experience with French cuisine was not so positive that she wanted a second and we broke down and went for Sushi at a Japanese Restaurant called Matsuya at 39 Rue Galande. It was pretty good, being so far from the places we normally associate with sushi like New York and Japan but Paris has a large number of Japanese places. In fact if you walk up Blvd St-Michel and turn right at Rue Monsieur de Prince there is a street full of
Thursday we took the #4 metro to Chateau Rouge and after walking through an African-Caribbean street market we climbed Montmartre to the Basilique du Sacre-Coeur, the big white cathedral
on the top of the highest mountain in Paris. Actually it is the only hill in Paris that
could be called a mountain and the view of the city from here is terrific, though we were looking straight into the sun on a hazy day and it did not make very good pictures. While we were on the mountain the clouds began to fill the sky and the temperature dropped several degrees. In the main square of the upper village there are dozens of artists who sell their paintings as they work on others. Some of them are quite good. Actually they all were. It seemed like the visual equivalent of busking, where you are
playing guitar on the street for money and it does not matter how much you make because if you were playing guitar in your room you would not be making anything and at least you are playing and hopefully getting better at it so one day you won't have to play on the street. The same with these artists who practice their art while at the same time are involved in the commercial aspect of being an artist. We met one, a fellow Greek named Christos Karamisaris who was originally from Thessaloniki but has
been in Paris for thirty years. He has exhibited his watercolors internationally including in the USA for the last 40 years but in Montemarte he was doing while-you-wait portraits for thirty euros. He gave us a few tips about Montmartre, among them to go to the Museum and see the exhibit of Jean Marais, the famous actor, artist, painter and all around Renaissance man, which we did, and to eat at the Le Vieux Chalet, the last truly authentic restaurant at the top of the mountain, the only one that still has
the original owners, which we didn't go to because Amarandi wanted to see the Salvador Dali Museum and it was getting colder by the second.
Gradually we made our way down the mountain and took the metro to St-Germain des Pres where we met our friend Ana Kamais who had arrived from Greece, and went to my favorite place, the Cafe Marie in the square
at St Sulpice for a snack and some wine. I rarely drink wine in the daytime, even in Athens but in Paris
I felt like it was necessary and once I did it and discovered that I could continue without getting that draggy feeling that often follows drinking wine in the afternoon, I did it regularly. I found that the true meaning of happiness was to be sitting with a glass of Bordeaux in the front section of Cafe Marie reading the International Herald Tribune while my wife happily spent my money on the Rue de Rennes nearby. After reading the paper I would take my camera and walk around the city for a few more hours
taking photos and working up an appetite for dinner. I became so obsessive about it that when I dropped my camera and shattered the lens in the Place du Concorde on my last full day I spent 6 hours and walked miles to find a replacement.
The best meal of the trip was at the Bistro d' Henri on Rue Princesse, a small street in between Saint Suplice and Rue du Four. Actually this was the best area for food and nightlife. Its several streets which include
Rue des Cannettes and there are a number of small bistros, a nice Italian restaurant, a beerhall,
a jazz club and the excellent Village Voice Bookstore. Its a neighborhood many people miss because its not that easy to find if you are sticking to the main avenues. Bistro d' Henri was the kind of French place you wish was in your town, no matter where you live. The dining area probably had 8 tables so your closest neighbor is close enough so that you may as well be at the same table and share food, which is what happened to us. We made friends with the party next to us, all Parisians, who insisted I taste some
of the things they had ordered including some kind of grilled spleen or kidney of a large animal. It was really like a fun dinner party and conversations were not confined to your table. Everyone interacted like in a Greek taverna where you can become friends for life with the party at the next table. In fact it was Thanksgiving Day which I had started the evening at the Canadian Bar on the Seine near Place St Michel where they were watching American football broadcast from the states. The bar was fun, the
game a blow-out and few people were watching it. They were actually serving a Thanksgiving dinner but I think Bistro d' Henri was more of a meal to be thankful for even without Turkey and stuffing. (See Paris restaurants)
Matt's Paris Journal Part 2
Paris would be a great place to be a musician. Wait. Let me restate that. Paris would be a great place to be a good musician. Like anywhere there are more than enough musicians whose talent does not reach the level
of their ego and winter on the streets of Paris singing Hotel California for a few euros a day is no way to make a living, much less earn the fare home to Nebraska. But if you can really play an instrument well enough to jam and impress other musicians, or are the kind of whole package talent that can entertain with your songs or some authentic traditional blues and maybe even country, playing in some dive for six months or more would not only be interesting but it would add to your resume, even if you only made
enough to scrape by. You have to wonder if Jim Morrison had not died would he have stayed in Paris and read his poetry and maybe played a guitar in some little artist cafe, not caring how much he made because he had already made it. It kind of makes me wonder about all these musicians who really had talent but for one reason or another dropped out of the music scene and made money doing realestate or investment banking, why they are not packing up their guitars and moving to Paris, or Berlin or Dublin or
some romantic music friendly place and doing their music again while living off the interest of the money they have put in the bank. (Oh, well. I guess its too late for that.) I guess I am asking myself, if I did not have the responsibilities of a parent, do I still have the courage to chuck everything and go to Paris and sing and play my songs, an aging relic who never made it and never will, taking up the space on a stage that some young kid with passion, desire and maybe more talent might be filling.
Probably not, and probably for the same reason that the blues-guitarist realestate agent won't quit his job no matter how bad the economy gets and move to Paris to gig again. Lack of motivation, courage, passion and a fear of losing what we already have. But if I could get a gig like my friend George Hamilton V who played country music for a couple years at Euro-Disney I probably would not turn it down.
The last night in Paris we wandered through the neighborhood of Belleville which is today, probably what the Latin Quarter was before it became the number 1 tourist destination in Paris if not the world. A mixture
of immigrants, artists, students and working class people who in the next few years barring a total economic breakdown, may be forced further out to the fringes of Paris as the area becomes what the Latin Quarter is now. But for now you can wander around and hear live music of all sorts coming out of small cafes and bars. This is the Paris that musicians younger than me come looking for. Not just musicians either. Several bars and clubs had crowds flowing out into the street that we had to force our
way through on our journey to a small brasserie called Zanzibar where our Parisian pal Phillipe, who used to live in Chapel Hill, took us for a French meal that was more Latin-American than Latin Quarter. On the way we stopped for a glass of wine at another place called Cafe de L'Industrie which looked and felt like Paris in the nineteen-thirties where I would have been happy spending the next two hours or the next several years.
So anyway without going into too much detail the last couple days in Paris we went to the Louvre Museum of course and rather than pick up where we left off on our last visit to France we just saw the same exact stuff all over again. We started
by passing through the Greek and Roman sculpture (kind of like being home) and then the large French paintings, 13th to 18th century Italians and Renaissance and ending exhausted and miles away from the exit in the Spanish section with no way back but to walk the way we had come. You would have to make a lot of trips to the Louvre to see it all. I think you probably would need to live in Paris because unless you are a total art fanatic there is no way you could spend a week looking at one painting
or sculpture after another during a holiday. After awhile your senses would be numbed to what you were seeing. The Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, Michelangelo's Dying Slave and other great works of art just become a blur when you see too much at once. The star of the museum was the Mona Lisa. Since we were last here they have added more security and pushed people further away using a sort of laser system which beams light into a kind of force field that causes a taser-like pain if you cross it, much like an electric
fence does to a cow, though the effects don't last more than a few minutes once you are able to get back on your feet. I am kidding of course but when we were there we found an impenetrable barrier of Chinese tourists all taking photos of the head in front of them.
Photos are allowed in the Louvre which I found to be very generous coming from Athens where they would stop you from photographing the Acropolis if they had enough guards to enforce it. The only rules are no flash, though you see them going off
everywhere, and you can't photograph the temporary exhibits. You can't use cell phones or bring in food either but I saw people doing both. One thing I found interesting where the artists who were scattered around the museum, painting copies of the masterpieces, and they had little signs on their easels that said "No Photo" or a camera with a line going through it. Seemed kind of unfair that they were allowed to make copies of a museum piece and yet we were not permitted to photograph their copies or
them painting their copies. But from my History of European Art course I knew that many of the great painters spent years in the Louvre, copying the masters, sort of like a musician jamming with his favorite bands CDs. Sometimes when walking through the Louvre you forget where you are because you are lost in the art and you look up and see a spectacular mural on the ceiling or realize the exhibition hall you have just walked down is a quarter of a mile long. (Check out the program Skip the Line Tour at the Louvre if you are worried about wasting the precious time you have in Paris)
Friday night we met some friends from the Greek island of Kea where we spend our summers who took us to the Brasserie Balzar on Rue des Ecoles near the Sorbonne and it was nice
having people with us that could tell us what everything on the menu was instead of having to pick just one or two things to ask the waiter and choose from those. The restaurant is something of Paris institution and was along with Bistro Henri, the best place we ate in. Historically it has been around since the thirties and there are old black and white photos of it on the wall. From their website(www.brasseriebalzar.com) I pulled this...
Paris, 1947. Western Europe threatened by a soviet invasion.
Albert Camus and
Jean-Paul Sartre are lunching at the Balzar.
- What will you do if the
soviets attack? asks Sartre.
- I'll join the resistance. Like Malraux. What
- I will not shoot against the proletariat replied
History has not recorded what they were eating
You can actually book on-line which I recommend because they are usually full. Not as full as the place in Place d Vosges that Phillipe showed us where you have to make reservations six months in advance. Imagine waiting that long and the day you are supposed to go all you are really in the mood for is pizza or you have just had a fight with your wife and you are not speaking.
The last full day I spent getting acquainted with the metro, having done most of my exploring on foot. While Andrea shopped and Amarandi slept, Ana and I went to the Rue d Crimee, as far as you could go on the map and wandered around
this ethnically diverse neighborhood near the Canal St Martin. I had noticed when I was walking near the Bastille
a tour boat sailing up the narrow body of water called the Port de Plaisance de Paris Arsenal heading straight for the square looking like it had no intention of stopping. It didn't. It sailed right into a tunnel that goes under the Blvd Lenoir and comes out at the Canal St Martin just a couple blocks east of the Place de la Republique. The canal which empties into the larger Bassin de la Villette has several boats which are music clubs, and a lot of activity even in November. There is even a Holiday Inn Express right on the water which seemed like a nice place to stay. Actually it would be great to have an apartment overlooking the water if I ever move here.
One of our discoveries besides the really interesting shops and bakeries of this neighborhood and the giant grid of tracks that bring trains to the Gare de l'Est was the Centquatre, an enormous building that has been renovated
and set up as an exhibition hall. It was originally the Municipal Funeral Hall. During its heyday 27,000 hearses left the building every year and 1,400 people worked there. The Municipal funeral service employed woodworkers, cabinetmakers, coachbuilders, mechanics, seamstresses, painters and masons and the city held a monopoly on funerals until 1993. You could see that this is a work in progress and that the possibilities of what can be done with such an amazing space are being figured out
now and you can read about its history and upcoming events and exhibits at www.104.fr.
We planned to meet Andrea at the Orsay Museum and took the metro to the Place de la Concorde, where a steady rain was falling and that's where I dropped my beloved camera, setting my plans into disarray.(Photo
on the left is the last ever taken with it). I was so annoyed with myself that I did not allow Ana to even speak to me as we walked to the Orsay, passing one thing after another that I would have loved to photograph. Actually the event added some focus to my adventure and for the rest of the day I searched for a replacement for it. I was intent on getting the same camera, a Sony Cybershot DSC W-300 because it took great photos at night without a flash. But the two major electronic shops on Blvd St Germain
did not carry it so I asked the girl at the desk of my hotel and she showed me on the map how to get to the Rue Montgallet somewhere between the 11th and 12th arrondissemonts. I only wish I had a camera to photograph the street that I had come to buy one. There were small shops one after another covered in advertisements for laptops, harddrives, computer components and cameras, each shop owned by Chinese, all packed with people, some with lines out the door. The street was full of Chinese as well. I asked
in almost every shop and none of them carried my camera. But on the walk back I stumbled upon the Prominade Plantee which is an old railway viaduct that has been turned into a long walking park where you can see the whole area from 4 stories up. Its better in the spring of course when the trees have leaves on them of course and flowers are in bloom, but even in the winter its a good way to escape the city if you need to go from the Bastille to Rue Montgallet for computer parts.
Anyway I ended up back on the Rue de Rivoli and bought a cheaper version of my camera at the French version of Best Buy or Comp USA and they even gave me the paperwork I would need to get my VAT back at the airport (which they could
not give me because I was going back to Athens and not to the USA). The camera was OK, in fact I liked it even better and it had a wider angle lense I think. The main thing I wanted it for was taking photos at night without a flash and as any amateur travel photographer knows, the best way to find out if the camera performs well in low light you have to take a photo at night through a shop window of a cage full of guinna pigs which I was lucky enough to find on my walk back to the hotel.
When Sunday came and it was time to leave I was kind of amazed at how much time had passed and how little we had seen as compared to what there was left to see. I wanted to take my daughter up on the Eiffel Tower but if she was cold on the
ground imagine how miserable she would have been up there. Anyway I had done that on my last trip, in fact I had walked up the steps because there was a 20 minute line for the elevator. We had breakfast at the hotel as we had for the previous 3 days when we discovered the bottomless cups of strong hotel coffee would have cost us about 20 euros a day in cafes, not to mention all the croissants, baguettes, cheeses, yogurt, fruit and cereal we could eat. Probably eating breakfast at the hotel for 10 euros a
day saved us about thirty because we really did not need to eat lunch and whatever coffee we drank in the course of the day was just an excuse to sit in a cafe. In fact a glass of wine was more of a requirement for my wired state than more coffee. The hotel called a taxi and 40 euros and 40 minutes later we were on the Aegean Airways line and not long after that on the plane. They showed the movie Mama Mia on the journey back to Athens and I found myself crying for my lost youth put to the music of Abba.
Yannis picked us up at the airport and told us the weather had been beautiful all week, and it still is. (Today is sunny and maybe about 70f and I started this at 8am so I can go out and enjoy it).
So that was my trip to Paris. I had a great time but I usually do since it does not take much to make me happy. I just need a city to walk around and take photos of until it is time for wine and dinner and Paris certainly
provides that. But our purpose was to go there for Amarandi and she did not have the kind of experience
we had hoped for her. You imagine your family walking happily through the Paris streets, laughing and pointing out interesting sites like the typical American family in television commercials but the reality is often the parents trying to make things interesting for a child that does not want to be interested, that is only happy when sitting in front of a computer, doing her Myspace or Facebook thing, watching TV and maybe going out for Sushi because she has decided it is easier to hate French food than
it. But I think a lot of teenagers are like this. I don't think I would have agreed to go with my parents to Paris at the age of 16. Amsterdam? Maybe. In fact that gives me a good idea for Amarandi's next school holiday. And actually she did see a lot of Paris when she was out shopping with her birthday money and she even tracked down her mother and found the Museum Orsay from the hotel when she woke up late on Saturday and you have to give her a lot of credit for that. And I bet if it had not been so cold
she would have done a lot more. So in the end it I think it was a successful trip and when we got back to Athens she announced that she wanted to go back to America. "I hate Athens" is not the same as "I love Paris", even for a teenager. But I am hoping that a seed was planted and the next time she goes she will feel like she is returning to a familiar place, and she will remember the good times, eating and shopping and not the times she wandered the cold wet streets of Paris with
her annoying parents
or the hours spent in her room trying to get away from them.