When one thinks of a clichÃ© destination for those smitten by wanderlust, the Parisians probably spring to the forefront. I would ask that you disenchant yourself from this very notion and try to perceive the cool cobbles of a narrow, rustic European avenue, lightly gilded by a fine, alabaster blanket; snow. Smell the wafting aroma of fresh foodstuffs in the morning cold, a far cry from the American urban existence. And imagine the overbearing awe as you stand in the shadows of an array of antiquated architecture. Paris, France, the great society that has risen above the Seine, and serving as a hotbed of intellectual, artistic, and soulful expression. The city will renew your soul.
For my first jaunt out of the country, I was buzzing with nervous excitement that dissipated into wonderment when I finally completed the nearly 12 hour flight over the Atlantic from LAX to Charles De Gaulle. The first thing that struck me vividly was the drastic weather change. Coming from the interminable summer of southern California it was shocking to meet the near freezing temperatures outside the small, efficient terminal. But my heart was warmed since the trip was no normal excursion, but rather a rendezvous with the woman of my dreams and a chance to meet her family, on her turf.
We headed out in a small, efficient vehicle, a Renault, and I was afforded my first view in the urban European lifestyle. The car cruised along streets where varied people from various backgrounds patrolled the promenades, in no hurry, but moving with patient determination towards their destination. I spotted vespa scooters putting alongside us, their rider almost always weighted down in warm coats, scarves, and other typical winter livery. I felt underdressed in my tell-tale hooded sweater, a comfortable thermal top, and jeans, especially as we pulled up to the end of the line: a quaint, cozy hotel called Hotel Albouy.
The building itself camouflaged into the scenic 19th century architecture, but a sign outside clearly marked the place. The inside was clean, not lavish, but for less than 60EURO per night it was a place well worth the stay. The staff was full of courteous people who were versed in English and French. They were also more than happy to give my girlfriend and I information about the area around the hotel, a district in Paris called the “Republique”.
We spent five days at the hotel and enjoyed every minute, especially dinners at the “Republique” square, where we enjoyed panninis from street vendors and (my personal favorite) pizza from a chain in Paris called Pizza Pino, where the food was well prepared, served elegantly by an attentive wait staff. The most mouthwatering thing is their use of high quality cheeses with a zesty, sharp bite. Another well-known restaurant we dined at was Leon de Bruxelles, where the specialty is mussles and fries, with mussles served in various sauces. One order was in a white butter and curry sauce, which the mussles soaked up well, and the other was a traditional marinara and mozzerella, for those who might have less adventurous palettes. While food was one of my favorite achievements during the trip, the real adventure was to be found throughout the streets of that ancient town.
The metro will take you where you want to go at a much cheaper price than taxis, and it allows you to interact with the various French citizens as they go about their daily business. And day after day this is what I did. The sightseeing began simple, merely journeying to the various districts of Paris. I was able to walk beneath the golden trim of the “Opera”, an area around and actual opera house that was commissioned back in the age of Napoleon. It is difficult to not feel small when you are dwarfed by the timeless stonework. But that was only one of many marvels, including the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre museum which houses the famed “Mona Lisa” by Da Vinci, as well as a multitude of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian pieces. It is these places where I was able to completely bask in the presence of history. Many sites are free, including the holy cathedral of Notre Dame where solemn masses gather in prayer, reverence, and penitence. I do believe I had begun to find myself, immersed as I was in such a strange and beautiful place. Snow fell many days, but the cold could not dampen the flame of adventure in me and I was driven on to even less descript spots, including neighborhood parks where children tossed snowballs on lazy weekends, small markets where you could purchase freshly baked croissants, Ã©clairs, and other pastries. Paris had stolen my heart with ease. It wasn’t until I visited another cathedral that my soul, too, became enthralled.
It was a cold evening with a light drizzle. My companion and I made the trek to the area where an ancient cathedral on a hill resided. I did not really know what to expect until we finally made the trek up steep steps and crested that blessed ridge, only to be standing at the very foot of the Sacre Coeur. With lights shining against its stone statues and columns it seemed as though heaven itself were endorsing the place. And it was here that I decided that the city of Paris was not so much a clichÃ© destination, but rather an integral stop in the travels of any individual, especially those seeking out the beauty in other cultures.
All in all, I found that the hype given to Paris by various expatriates throughout time was not unfounded. The spirit of artists rests within the narrow byways, the thousands of cafÃ©s, bistros, bars, and shops. James Baldwin believed that an American could go to Europe and find that he was inexorably American by contrast to the lifestyles there. This is something that I agree with, having found a more objective view on places and people by feeling that contrast. I wish you bon chance in your own travels and hope that you will also experience the magnificent change of pace that exists for you outside of America, in a place where time seems to stand still, where inspiration is palpable in the air, a place called Paris.
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