Paris smashes stereotypes

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During my tour with Parisian friends, we admired the architecture of the famed Palais de Louvre, with history dating back to the middle ages, according to the official Louvre website. Its entrance, the Pyrmaid du Louvre, is a glass pyramid built by I. M. Pei. It first opened on March 30, 1989, according the Louvre website. Photo by Jaime Dunkle.

The freezing floor cramped my legs and I woke up with numb hands—side effects of what I call “Francing.”

Francing included giving up my apartment, sleeping on my best friend’s floor and cramming my junk into a storage unit during spring term. Traveling to France has been my dream since I was 10 years old (and now I’m 33), so the sacrifice was a no-brainer.

Before the beginning of spring term, I applied to the University Studies Abroad Consortium Summer Session II program in Pau, France. I also signed up for the four day Paris tour.

I knew Paris had more to offer than what was on the agenda for my study abroad program, so I booked my flight three days in advance and rented a room in an apartment on Philippe-Auguste near the Père Lachaise cemetery, through Airbnb.com.

When I first arrived, I explored the city with some Parisian friends. We ate pizza at Pi Hour, where I discovered the perfect food combination: figs and chèvre (goat cheese)—which I now use in salads regularly.

We walked around for hours, starting on Rue Saint-Lazarre; going to Place de Concorde, browsing at Colette, the mega-hipster superstore that puts Urban Outfitters to shame. We admired the clear skies at the Tuileries Gardens, walked around the Louvre, and saw way too many other sites in the six hours we spent perusing the streets of Paris for me to name here.

The last place we went to was Jim Morrison’s old apartment building, 17 rue Beautreillis in the Fourth Arrondissement. As my friend Florence and I were walking toward the apartment building Morrison lived and died in, we quickly followed a tenant through the secured entrance. Our hearts were racing and we were both squealing about our good luck. It didn’t last long because the apartment manager kicked us out, but instead of leaving, Florence led us into the courtyard where we looked up and tried to guess which apartment Morrison shared with Pamela Courson. We parted ways and I rode the metro (subway), reimagining what took place when Morrison died, contemplating the mystery of his death.

I went to Père Lachaise Cemetery the next day on my own. Of course, the tomb of Morrison was the first famous grave I visited. Without him, I would not be a Francophile today. He read several books by French writers and many of his biographies make reference to those books. Back in middle school, I read all of them that I could find, from Jean Cocteau to Arthur Rimbaud. Many people probably don’t know this, but it was obvious Morrison wanted to not only be known as a rock star but also as a prominent literary figure. He spent most of his youth studying literature, especially French literature, and many of his lyrics were pulled from his poems.

The Père Lachaise is 44 hectares (108.73 acres) of sprawling tombs replete with crying statues and open mausoleums. It is so vast that I went back the next day. I saw the graves of Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix, Jean de La Fontaine, Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin), Oscar Wilde, George Méliès, Gustave Doré, Gertrude Stein, Edith Piaf, Frédéric François Chopin and many others. Look for a link to the online tour at the end of this article.

My solo journey had come to an end and it was time to meet up with the USAC group at Hotel Terminus near the Port de l’Orleans metro stop.

The first day of the tour was a brisk walk through the Luxembourg Garden, Latin Quarter, down Saint Michel Boulevard, and past the Sorbonne. I must be a horrible tourist because it was my least favorite place.

On the second day of the tour, we climbed 700 steps to the second floor of the Eiffel Tour. We waited in line on the second floor, only to be deceived and pushed out to get back in line until they began selling tickets for the top floor again. The view reached over the city in an open 45 degree angle, even from the second floor. It was a clear day, so one could see for miles. I kind of regret not buying a glass of champagne to toast myself for making it to the top (you can buy it there).

After the Eiffel Tower, we rushed through lunch at the Musée de l’Armée and then viewed Napoleon’s hermetically sealed tomb in the Dome Church. It was so vast that I felt two feet tall. Next stop was the Opèra Garnier, which was extraordinary in both its exterior and interior design. The Romanesque paintings resembling some gods such as Mercury (stolen from the Greek Hermes, of course) and Neptune (Poseidon of the Greeks) sent me into another world, one with roots reaching into ancient history.

After visiting the opera house we saw the Arc de Triomphe at the center of the Place Charles de Gaulle in Champs-Élyées, linking both the old and new Paris. I enjoy the patriotism in France, and the Arc de Triomphe is significant to visit since it’s a monument dedicated to so many who died in French wars.

On the third day, we rode the TGV (France’s bullet train, the Train à Grande Vitesse) to the Château de Versailles. The train ride was about two hours, so I bought an espresso from the gentleman in the café car. He was kind and we talked about music, in French “bien sûr” (of course). He said his favorite band was The Beatles, but he also liked David Bowie—his selection was a pleasant surprise.

By the time we arrived at the château I was excited but so drained from the day before. So much so that I did not mind speaking with Anna, a graduate student who was about to depart for a job in Washington D.C. in the U.S., for as long as I did. I think we must’ve talked for at least 20 minutes before I began exploring the castle. I was happy to be speaking French with a kind individual who didn’t mind helping me with my grammar every other sentence.

And that’s been my experience for the most part—French people are not snobs who hate Americans. Many French people were excited to speak with me, and if anything, they were willing to talk for as long as I was, even if it meant hours (which actually happened when I met a chess journalist at the hotel I stayed at in Paris. I am grateful for every second of our lengthy conversations).

After I left Versailles, I went to the famed impressionism museum, Musée D’Orsay. Many pieces stood out against the rest, especially Henri Martin’s “Sérénite” from 1899, Alexander Hanison’s “En Arcadie” from 1886, and Lucien Lèvy-Dhurmer’s “La Sorciere” from 1897. Of course there were many others, but those three painting spoke to me the most. It was also exciting to see original Degas, Monet and Picasso paintings.

That night, we ate dinner together as a group at Le Grand Corona. The dinner was three courses—a green salad topped with avocado and some kind of horseradish dressing, a quarter chicken with sauce on a plate with pan-fried potatoes and sautéed mushrooms, followed by an upside-down apple tart topped with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with caramel.

After dinner, we went on a boat ride via Bateaux-Mouches on the Seine at sunset. We saw all of the famous monuments along the river, but we also saw many people just hanging out on the river banks, and there were also many boats adorned with French flags.

The boats foaming the river’s surface, adorned with French flags blowing in the wind against the bright orange-pink hues painting the sky, cruising under stone bridges stained with time, all caused me to promise myself, yet again, that I will one day live in Paris.

Our final day was spent visiting Sainte Chappelle and Notre Dame. The interior of Sainte Chapelle, built in the mid-13th century, was full of vast stained glass depictions of the Bible, spanning from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. I have never seen something so detailed as far as stained glass goes. It was also interesting learning about the alleged holy relics that were once housed there—the fragments of the cross and crown of thorns—which came from the emperors of Constantinople in the fourth century. The purchase of them by Louis IX helped make France and Paris the second capital of Christianity, according to medieval Europe (as stated in the pamphlet from Sainte-Chapelle).

Next, we walked to Notre Dame, first built in the mid-12th century and then abandoned and rebuilt after Victor Hugo’s novel, Hunchback of Notre Dame, which was a smashing success. The first thing I did when I got inside was light a candle for my late brother Stephen. He would be so happy if he knew I was in Paris. He knew how badly I wanted to go since I was a little kid.

Our group arrived during the beginning of mass, which was accompanied by a choir. The singing mixed with the architectural beauty and history of the church’s interior—with statues of Mary and pieces of other ancient buildings added to its construction—was a formula for instant, uncontrollable tears. I didn’t care that I was in public. I was where I have always wanted to be, Paris, and its magic was fully unlocked for me in this holy place.

After walking through Notre Dame for what felt like an eternity (in a good way), I walked around its small neighboring streets, taking in the culture and talking to random people on the street. Everyone was so friendly. Then I decided to visit the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore, where I fell in love with Paris all over again. It really set in when I went to the library upstairs, with its tiny writer’s room. I quickly scribbled a love letter to Paris, took some photos, used the typewriter, and left for Charles Baudelaire’s grave at Montparnasse Cemetery.

I didn’t have much time before the Catacombs closed, so I rushed to Baudelaire’s grave, left him a note and some rocks, and took a rock from beside his grave, and then saw Jean-Paul Sartre and took some photos before meeting my Parisian friend Marie at the Catacombs across the street.

We were astounded by how many dead people were beneath the city. I simply have no words for it, although there were a lot of morbid yet beautiful poetry and sayings displayed throughout the subterranean expanse.

After that already incredibly long day, I went to the Musée de Rodin. My feet were throbbing out of my shoes, but I kept forging on. I needed to see Rodin’s work with my own eyes before leaving Paris. It was worth every toe-crippling step.

La Porte de l’Enfer was enormous and intimidating. Somehow it being placed outdoors helped soothe its eeriness. My favorite in-door sculpture is La Baiser, which is a man and a woman embraced in a kiss. To me, it is the perfect contrast to La Porte de l’Enfer.

For the rest of my week in Paris, when I wasn’t with USAC for the study tours, I was wandering the streets to and from less tourist-friendly neighborhoods like Bastille where I ate some incredible brochette de beouf (beef skewer) with an unforgettable chèvre dipping sauce.

If you find yourself in the City of Light, I recommend getting away from the obvious tourists to drink at a bar with younger people or eat at an authentic restaurant. Take the metro to Bastille, and find the street called Rue de Charonne in the 11th Arrondissement. It’s a little tricky navigating to it from the roundabout, but just practice your French and ask for directions—that’s what I did and a kind French man named Maurice showed me where to go. I didn’t bother with the actual Rue de Charonne because “les petites rues” (the smaller streets) have several quaint restaurants and bars.

Take a virtual tour of the Père Lachaise here, learn about France’s Bastille Day here, and listen to my favorite (experimental) hip-hop producer based in Paris, Al’Tarba. To make sure you check out Al’Tarba, I’ve included the following video link.

View most of the places I visited on this custom Google map:

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