Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Paris: The Food

Part two of a four-part series on my experiences and observations in the City of Light.

Paris:  The Food

Most of you know that I eat to live, not live to eat, so this may be a disappointingly lackluster post.  Jayson and I are not foodies and eating fancy meals at chi-chi restaurants was not a priority on our trip.  There were some edible treats, however, that I did get excited about.

Our first stop on our first day in Paris was at Laduree, the famed bakery on the Champs-Elysee.  With five locations in Paris, 19 locations in the rest of Europe, and 18 additional locations throughout the world (with New York City being the only US location), it is best known for the double-decker macaron, selling 15,000 daily.  We went in and I stopped to take it all in – the beautiful tea room, the incredibly pretty displays, and, of course, the array of visually stunning pastries at the counter.  I knew I wanted a macaron but choosing which flavor was difficult.  There were at least 25 to choose from, so I went with the Violette and Jayson chose the Caramel a la fleur de sel (soft caramel with sea salt).  What I love about macarons is their texture and punch of flavor in every bite.  The Violette was delicious, sweet and rich in flavor.  After a bite, Jay and I traded.  He liked mine better, so we finished each other’s.  The caramel was yummy – not as sweet, with a hint of salt.  I’ve had lots of macarons, and Laduree’s are definitely the best I’ve tasted.

I loved that breakfast was served at our hotel until 11:00am.  It was nice to sleep in and not worry about missing it!  We went downstairs each morning and picked out fruit, yogurt and cereal.  On our table would be a basket of bread – baguettes, croissants, and pain au chocolat – with a plate of spreadable cheese and Nutella accompanying it.  They would also serve tea, juice, and chocolat chaud (hot chocolate).  I was in heaven!

I noticed many people eating baguettes on the metro.  Most popular was jambon et fromage (ham and cheese).  Ham is a staple on French menus, as evidenced in the French specialty croque-monsieur, which is a grilled ham and cheese sandwich with béchamel sauce.  Jayson ordered it when we visited Les Deux Magots in the Saint-Germain-des-Pres area of Paris.  This café is where the literary and intellectual elite of the city used to gather (think Sartre, de Beauvoir, Hemingway, and Picasso).  Let’s just say Jayson wasn’t impressed.  He was unenthusiastic overall with French food, so we ended up eating at many Italian restaurants, which were everywhere.  In fact, Jayson had the best lasagna he claims he’s ever had in his life while we were in Paris.  As for me, I had lots and lots of salade chevre chaud (salad with warm goat cheese) with baguettes, so I was perfectly content.

When Jayson and I were in Amsterdam years ago, we marveled at how the waitstaff at any restaurant would leave us alone for hours on end to enjoy our meal.  The same was true in Paris.  They would serve our drinks, take our order and bring our food, and then we were on our own – for HOURS if we wanted – until we caught their eye to ask for our check.  Europeans value the social aspect of the meal:  conversations, catching up, time spent with loved ones.  There is no rush to get us paid and out the door and turn tables to increase business.  We didn't feel pressured to eat as fast as we could and get the heck out.  We were conscious of this and had to force ourselves to slow down and really enjoy our time together.  It was lovely.

Another observation about the endless outdoor cafes:  the chairs are lined up side by side facing outward.  Everyone gets to look out at the people passing by while they enjoy their meal.  One more reason why I love the French – they encourage people-watching (my favorite sport).

One morning we walked to an outdoor market.  It was a long, narrow set up of numerous closely-packed stands, all the way down the block.  Scarves, bags, flowers and FOOD of every kind.  The cheese was the most tempting – blocks and wheels of every cheese imaginable.  The locals had their small wheeled baskets and it was nice to experience a slice of life different from ours.  I wished we had a neighborhood market I could walk to twice a week for fresh food and produce.

Another glimpse into local life came when we were walking back to our hotel one afternoon.  We noticed a group of people gathered on the sidewalk and realized that a school was letting out for the day.  Parents were happily waiting for their children with a chocolate croissant in hand as an afternoon snack for the walk home.

But my favorite food moment had to be laying on the grass looking up at the Eiffel Tower while eating a pain au chocolat.  Perfection.

OK, I’m getting off my shoebox now.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Paris: The Sights

Paris, oh Paris.  I already loved Paris before I ever went there, and it did not disappoint.  While my realist husband pointed out the good and not-so-good (“There are cigarette butts everywhere!”), I refused to see it with anything other than rose colored glasses.

I belong in Paris.

In the first of a four-part series on my experiences and observations in the City of Light, I will share some of the sights that made our trip an unforgettable adventure.

Paris:  The Sights

After landing at Charles de Gaulle Airport, figuring out which Metro tickets to purchase, and taking the train into the city, we emerged from the underground mazes and tunnels to a clear blue sky and the Arc de Triomphe in front of our very eyes.  Dragging our luggage against the cobblestone streets, we walked toward the Arc and down one of the many off-shooting streets to our hotel.  As we turned onto our street, I immediately noticed the hotel sign while Jayson, who is blessed to not share my tunnel vision, looked just past the sign to the Eiffel Tower at the end of the street.


We stood in awe for a few minutes, staring at that iconic symbol of Paris, right there, in person, welcoming us – Bienvenue a Paris!

Once we settled into our room (which we changed three times, but that’s another story), we ventured out to get a closer look at the Arc de Triomphe.  Walking just a couple of blocks, there it was – so close, and yet so far – on an island surrounded by a circular road with racing cars, buses, and motorcycles with seemingly no break.  Hmmm.  How would we get across the moat of traffic to reach the island of the Arc?

Attempting to cross the roundabout directly would have been suicide, so Jayson suggested we walk in a circle, looking for a way across.  We quickly found an underground tunnel – success!  We decided not to go to the top, and instead walked all around it and under it.  This “Triumphal Arch” honors those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic War, with the names of all French victories and generals inscribed on its inner and outer surfaces.  Beneath its vault lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I, and its eternal flame.

One of the many streets shooting off the Arc de Triomphe is the Champs Elysees, one of the world’s most famous streets.  Once known as a high-end shopping destination, it’s lost a lot of its charm to touristy destinations, including H&M, Zara, Adidas and McDonald’s.  However, it still houses Cartier, Hermes, Guerlain, and my favorite, Laduree.

We visited Notre-Dame Cathedral, with its incredible French Gothic architecture, though the gargoyles on the outside of the building really creeped us out.  The line to get in was long but it moved quickly.  We were able to witness a mass in progress as well as communion.  The art was rich and the stained glass incomparable to anything we’ve seen.  It was definitely odd having a gift shop right in the church – exchanging money at the temple, anyone?  But it really was magnificent, inside and out.  As we left, we walked through the gardens along the Seine River and decided to cross one of the many bridges and wander through the streets of the fifth arrondissement.

Much to our amusement, we happened to walk across the Pont de l'Archevêché, one of two “love locks” bridges.  The story goes that a couple writes their names on a padlock and locks it onto one of the bridges.  They then throw the key into the Seine River as a symbol of their undying love.  Yes, we left our names on the bridge.  Come on, it’s Paris!  It was impressive just how many locks were on both sides of the bridge – not something you see every day.

We loved walking through the Latin Quarter, in the fifth and sixth arrondissements.  One day we happened upon a photo shoot right in the street.  We also passed by the Sorbonne University, and from there the Palais du Luxembourg.  We bought ice cream and walked through the gates, seeing children floating sailboats in the fountains and thinking how much fun Silas and James would have here.  We walked around, stopping to look at the many statues.  Finally, we went to the gardens and planted ourselves down, ready for our favorite activity of all time:  people watching.  We observed many groups of students on the lawns, families with young children, professor types, and many young lovers.  They all came equipped with blankets, baguettes of fromage et jambon (ham and cheese), and other treats.  Many were napping.  We could easily tell the European students from the American ones (the French don’t sit criss cross applesauce).  We enjoyed a lazy afternoon until a light sprinkle cleared the lawn.

While Jayson and I aren’t touristy people, we accepted that as first-timers in Paris, we were indeed tourists.  And so we happily made our way to the Louvre, taking the typical photos in front of I. M. Pei’s glass pyramids.  The museum opened in 1793, and the building itself is as much a work of art as the masterpieces it houses.  Our first stop was the Mona Lisa – by far it’s most famous work.  She was encased in glass behind a velvet rope with throngs of visitors physically fighting to get close to her.  I was elbowed by at least two Asian tourists, and I may or may not have elbowed back.  Once that was out of the way, we took our time exploring the rest of the museum.  It was overwhelmingly breathtaking.  Room after room, hall after hall, one work of genius after another.  My absolute favorite was Venus de Milo.  Even armless she was stunning.  After about three hours, Jayson was losing steam.  I would say, “Just one more room!” only to find that the room was actually a wing containing countless more rooms!  During our fourth hour we started getting kooky, as evidenced by some of our photos.

We also visited the Place Vendome, with the Vendome Column, originally erected by Napoleon, in the center of the square.  We sat on the steps in front of the Opera National de Paris, looking out onto the city.  It reminded me a bit of Times Square, but a lot prettier!

We took the Metro to Montmartre, a hill in northern Paris with spectacular views of the city.  It was a really fun area, full of artists.  Dali, Picasso, Monet and Van Gogh used to work or have studios in this area.  We saw the “I Love You:  The Wall” monument in the center of the Abbesses garden. The wall was created by two artists – Frederic Baron and Claire Kito – as a rendezvous location for lovers and a lasting monument to eternal adoration.  It’s over 40 square meters and has 612 tiles of enameled lava.  The phrase “I love you” is written more than a thousand times in over 300 languages, including Armenian!

From there we walked up the countless stairs to the Sacre-Coeur Basilica (Sacred Heart).  It is majestic – white, historic, inviting.  Photographs are not allowed inside the church and they enforced the rule rigorously!  Jayson dared defy it and he got scolded.  There was no service in progress but the gift shop was bustling!  We sat on the steps outside and stared over the hill onto the city.  We caught our breath and then made our way to the steps, which were a lot easier on the way down.

Finally, our sweet Eiffel Tower.  That beautiful, iconic, rusty tower that encapsulates the romance of Paris.  It was walking distance from our hotel and we must have visited it at least ten times during the week – in the morning, in the afternoon while eating a pain au chocolat on the lawn, in the evening to see it lit up up close, again in the evening to watch the lights sparkle on the hour, and again from the day from the Trocadero for a different angle.  Every time it caught our eye – whether walking around, on the Metro, or at another landmark – we stopped and stared.  It never got old.  We also took the tour up to the tippy top of the tower, and it was majestic.  I’m not gonna lie, it was a little scary going up, but despite the overcast weather that day, the peak was perfectly still – not a breeze to be felt.  We walked in circles taking in Paris from all angles, then went down to the lower floor for another spin.

We passed on visiting Versailles because that would have meant leaving the city, and I didn’t want to part from Paris for even a moment.  Seven days was not enough.  We saw plenty but there was certainly more to see.  Alas, next time.

Next up, Paris:  The Food

OK, I’m getting off my shoebox now.