Saturday, July 31, 2010

Tour de FRICKIN France

Okay, so I've been really remiss in updating the blog. In fact, I'm several days behind. But when I go out, I come back late and I'm tired and sigh. Whatever. So this is going to be a pretty short description of what went down last Sunday. It was pretty fabulous day.

So at 11 or so, Celine and I met up in the reception and went to the creperie that now knows us both and got two crepes. Then we took a nice walk to Hotel de Ville, where we took the metro to Les Champs Elysees, where the Tour was doing its final stages. There were already tons of people there, but not as many as on Bastille Day. So the first thing I do, like a genius, is buy ridiculous amounts of souvenirs and Tour de France gear for my family back home. Because, really, how often do you get to say you went to the Tour de France? Right. Not often at all. So we walked a good ways until we spot a completely empty spot (right between a tree and pole, whatever) and claimed it as our own. Very good spot. Practically right next to the road, and 100m from the finish line (called "Sprint").

There we stood. For 5. Frickin. Hours. FIVE HOURS. The bikers were supposed to come by at two but the only people who started coming by at 2pm were the Tour sponsors. Sponsors after sponsors after sponsors, touting their products with huge floats, moving automatic structures, trucks with dancers, loud music, painted vehicles, hoses, the works. It was a very entertaining procession that lasted way too long. But entertaining nonetheless.

Before the cyclists came by, we had an interesting "incident." Celine and I had great spots so people kept trying to squeeze through and get as close as possible to the road. At some point, a very large foul-smelling mouth-breathing man came by and kept trying to squeeze through the crowd towards the railing, putting his hand right next to mine. I kept pushing him away so he went and stood right behind Celine, practically pushing up against her. Finally, the very nice man next to Celine called over the police and the police shooed the man away. I thought a fight was going to break out and was extremely eager. Unfortunately, it did not. However, I did notice another neighbor once Mouth Breather had left:

Too cute. Too too cute. Okay, on to the cyclists: everyone freaked out when they saw the first cyclist coming towards us. And then suddenly, it was a procession. Several cars full of supplies and security officials and the like came speeding by, followed a tight throng of cyclists all biking at insane speeds, followed by a lot more cars with bikes strapped to the roofs, a medic, and some policemen on motorcycles. The cars were going so fast to keep up with the cyclists. Most of the photos I took were basically blurs because they were moving so fast. Anyway, it was pretty thrilling.

These things are timed trials though. So basically they do several laps and get points for finishing with a certain time (I believe...) so they had to do eight laps around the Champs Elysees and that was the final leg. After the fourth lap, Celine and I decided we had seen enough blurs on bikes and peaced out. After getting back to the foyer, we got Celine her last ever crepe, I ate a dinner of something..and we had a nice snacking session by the Seine as the sun debated setting (it was only 6:30, so it decided not to).

All in all, pretty awesome day. So these last few days have been chock full of events, which I will write about asap. Tomorrow: Free Museum Day!! Woot. Going to be a busy busy LONG day. A plus tard!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Very Belated Week 3 Recap

(for Daddy)

1. went to the Louvre on Wednesday. Got lost. Saw only half the French paintings in 2 hours and 45 minutes. Made plans to go back several more times.

2. Now have my own creperie. And my own boulangerie. They know and love me (I hope).

3. Had lunch with another Princeton alum. Couldn't cut my duck. The waiter teased me (what is it with French waiters??)

4. Failed at finding a farmer's market. Failed at shopping at a farmer's market. Failed to properly by produce at the supermarket.

5. Went to the YSL fashion exposition at the Petit Palais. Was awed by haute couture clothes. Went to Les Invalides. Saw Napoleon's tomb and an amazing war museum. Saw armor from centuries ago.

6. Went on a bike tour throughout Paris at nighttime. Took a boat cruise on the Seine. Magical.

7. Went to the Tour de France five hours early. Got great spots. 100m from the finish line. Right by the course. Spent ridiculous amounts of money on gifts for family/friends.

Okay, that's it. Going to the Musee d'Orsay tonight. Hopefully will have time to post about Tour de France//what I've been doing this week!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The One With the Flowers

Okay, Bike Tour time! Finally. If you haven't read my post about the YSL Expo and Les Invalides, scroll down and read that first. I mean it. Read it? Okay good. On we go to the Bike Tour.

So I got back from my trip with Isabelle at about 5:45, hurriedly changed into biking clothes, quickly ate an apple and went to the reception room to meet Maria at our decided time of 6:15. She was walking through the door at that exact a skirt. Turns out she had just gotten back from her own long day and had to change. Took her about 20 minutes, which meant we were rushing out of the Foyer and running to the train. Had to change the metro and then go about ten stops and then run around like lost people trying to find the Fat Tire Bike Tour office. We were following the directions on their website, but still failed. Finally, we got there at about 7:07 (for a 7:00 bike tour), breathing heavily, talking between gasps. Turns out we weren't even close to being late for the tour. There are several groups that leave in short bursts, and we were put in group six, which left right before 8:00pm. So we had some time to kill, doing nothing, watch the Day Bike Tour trips come back and the Night Bike Tour groups get their bikes and take off with their respective leaders.

When it came to our turn, I got a kid's bike (of course), we got into our group of 24 English-speaking people (from England, Australia, the States, etc.) and our very awesome American guide, Jackson. Very funny. Witty. Loud. Just the kind of person I like. He told us to stick together, follow his instructions, and DOMINATE the streets. So we did. And off we were into the streets of Paris. Biking through Paris: a lot of fun. Not half as scary as I thought. We almost killed a bunch of pedestrians, though. And pissed off a LOT OF cars and motorcyclists. Some pedestrians thought we were the Tour de France...hahaaa. It was a nice, breezy day, we all stuck together, and it was quite a relaxing enjoyable ride (especially since I'm used to biking every night back home and had quite missed the endorphin high).

Our first stop: the Notre Dame. We barely stopped to take pictures, but we had an interesting time trying to navigate the crazy amounts of people always crowding the courtyard in front of the Notre Dame. Almost ran into a few carriages. Next stop: the bridge right next to where I live, to get the best ice cream in Paris from Berthillon. The main store is literally on the street next to mine, but I've been avoiding it so I could save the experience for the bike tour. Berthillon itself was closed but almost every ice cream place on the island sells Berthillon, so Maria and I, like true residents of Isle Saint-Louis, went to the place that we know wouldn't have a crowd in front of it. Know what? Everyone on the bike tour followed us! Hilarious. I got a bowl of two scoops: cacao amer and framboise. Very good. Walked back to the bridge and enjoyed it with the rest of the group while we listened to Jackson's anecdotes about every historic site around us.

For example: apparently, Johnny Depp lives on my island. Um..woot. Why did I not know this before? Now I have to go stalk his apartment. Sigh. I can't believe this isn't common knowledge at the Foyer. We should have a bonding trip to hunt down Johnny Depp. Okay, but I digress. Back onto the bikes. And now, through the streets of Paris, to the Palais du Justice, which I've already been to. Stop for some stories, blah blah. Never got off the bikes. Next stop: Louvre. Where we did a few laps around the fountain in the courtyard before biking to the front with the beautiful glass pyramid. We actually were allowed to get off and take pictures this time!

After the Louvre, we continued through the streets, past a beautiful pedestrian bridge of picnicers, past a ferris wheel, through a beautiful park and down a ramp to get to the boat docks. We parked our bikes on the side of all the tour buses that were there and got on to our boat, called Les Bateaux Mouches. We made up only a small part of the all the crowd on the boat. There were at least eighty people on that boat, on both the bottom and top decks. We sat down in a group and waited for the tour to begin.

The whole ride along the Seine lasted about an hour, with an recorded tape announcing (in five or six languages) every time we passed an important historical site, and a bit of information concerning the site. By the time they got to the Mandarin translation, we had passed the site and the Chinese tourists were getting incorrect information. Unfortunate. But Paris at night, especially on the keys with all the tourists and the parties and the picnics and the music and the dancing, so beautiful. It was past ten and Paris is alive! It took me a while to figure out how to get my camera to take good pictures in the dark, but I got a few.

The back of the Conciergerie (mentioned in a previous post):

A bridge (every time we passed under a bridge, the whole boat screamed as if they were on a rollercoaster, and often the pedestrians on the bridge joined us in our ludicrousness):

Another night cruise (we passed quite a few, and a ton of them were quite lavish, with dinners going on inside, plants everywhere, themed decorations, one had a nightclub, etc.):

By a few, I mean I got forty pictures of just the Eiffel Tower. It's pretty. And we were so close. It's absolutely gorgeous at night.

As always, more pictures are up on the Picasa web album.
By the time we finished the boat tour, it was almost midnight. We got back on our bikes, plowed through a crowd of pedestrians and biked back through the still-jumping streets of Paris to the Fat Tire Bike Tour office. It was past midnight at this point and by the time Maria and I got back to the foyer, it was 1230am. In any case, it was a night very well spent.

Next post: Le Tour de France!!!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Voulez-vous que je vous accompagne?

These are the artisan marshmallows (which I have now finished--thank god!!) which were the bane of my existence for so long. To be completely honest, though, the last couple were not so bad. They were almost good.

Anyway, this entry is about Saturday. My fabulous Saturday. As of Friday night, I had been planning on going to Centre Pompidou and Les Invalides (all by my lonesome) before joining my friend Maria for the Fat Tire Bike Tour. However, a friend of mine, the Belgian Isabelle, was sitting next to me in the reception area and told me about the YSL (Yves Saint Laurent, a very famous French designer) exposition currently going on at the Petit Palais (a Parisian museum, one of about 1000). It also turned out that we both wanted to go to Les Invalides! So we decided to spend Saturday together.

I woke up pretty early, had breakfast with Isabelle and then we made the 40-minute trek (very beautiful in the morning, just along the Seine, nice cool weather, all the beautiful buildings all around us, very calm and quite) over to the Petit Palais. The place hadn't even opened yet and yet there was already a line of ticket holders and non-ticket holders. Sigh. We though we'd never get in. Thankfully, we only had to wait half an hour and then we were in! Lucky us!

Well so we went into the exposition...and it was absolutely amazing. Very beautifully crafted. Unfortunately, for obvious reasons, photography was not allowed. So I couldn't take pictures of the reconstructed Yves Saint Laurent workdesk, his many sketches, and over 300 pieces that had been put on mannequins, lining about 20-30 rooms. There were pieces in glassed showcases, videos playing on screens (of interviews of friends and the designer himself), framed prints of magazine photos of models wearing his clothing, walls reprinted with newspaper article excerpts talking about his shows, plaques on every room describing the era and theme of the set of clothing within the was just so so well done. My favorite room was the one with the ballgowns. Very haute-couture, high fashion, exquisite looking. The room of exposition itself looked like a high-society ballroom, where an actual ball would take place. I took a very sneaky picture:

Yes, it sucks. Deal. The last room featured hanging gradient dresses, made of the softest chiffons and silks and completely airy materials. The room was covered in squares of fabric in all color palettes, lining the hanging dresses that were blowing in the breeze of built-in fans. Very nice effect. Couldn't picture very well, but you get the idea:

So after the exposition, Isabelle and I decided to explore the rest of the Petit Palais, which is basically like any other museum, just smaller. Paintings, sculptures, precious metals, the like. I got bored pretty quickly and decided to wait for Isabelle (an art student) in the garden (which I infinitely preferred to the paintings). Look how pretty!!

Okay, on to Les Invalides. Les Invalides was basically a ten-minute walk from Petit Palais, a straight walk across the most beautiful bridge I have ever seen, Pont Alexandre III. Seriously, this bridge is spectacular:

And then we continued to Les Invalides. Basically, Les Invalides is a collection of buildings that, together, pay tribute to soldiers and wars and the victims of wars past. It has a hotel, a hospital, a church, and several museums commemorating wars and war relics past. We started out by visiting the L'Eglise Saint-Louis des Invalides, which is absolutely breathtaking church dedicated to fallen soldiers.

And then it was on to the many, many museums of Les Invalides. First was Le Musee de L'Ordre de la Liberation. Basically, a hallway playing old war documentaries on giant screens, and then several rooms and hallways displaying war diaries, war propaganda, uniforms, tributes to actual soldiers, war medallions, Nazi swastikas...basically a ton of paraphernalia from World War II. The upstairs of this museum contained a particularly frightening (but thankfully very small) memorial to the I never, ever want to see again and little plaques of information, as well as artistic representations of the horrors in camps.

And then...on to Napoleon's tomb! So awesome. It's a gigantic building with several small circular rooms dedicated to other, very famous fallen soldiers (like the other Napoleon...who no one really hears about) and generals and the like. They all have very large coffins, all of which are blocked off from the public. Beautiful though. Napoleon's is in the very center of the building, set in a large circular crypt with a viewing gallery, columns, and walls covered in sculptures and bas relief art.

After a bit more wandering around the tomb and the rest of the amazing church and the gardens right in front of it (also very beautiful are now on Picasa), we went on to the Musee de L'Armee, my personal favorite part of the entire Les Invalides experience. The musee is essentially a tribute to World War I and World War II. It's incredibly well-made, with artifacts, reconstructed war artifacts, letters, propaganda, newspaper article reprints, videos, walls covered in murals, war banners, medals, uniforms, artillery...I thought I had died and gone to heaven. (I'm a big non-fiction war story fan.)

It was so so so cool. Unfortunately, I had to quickly skim most of the rooms, as we just did not have enough time to see everything there was to see in detail. The rooms were cluttered with things to watch and look at and read. I could have spent days just in the war museum. However, by then, our feet were tired and we were both quite hungry. So we went to our last stop: the arms and armory museum, which featured ...arms and armory from several different countries and many different centuries. Bayonets, swords, guns, pistols, horse armor, Chinese warrior gear, descriptions of the many, many layers of armor a soldier had to wear...we saw it all. Pretty neat stuff. Most of them were donations, so it was all authentic, as well. So cool.

>Afterwards, we wandered onto a side market street well-hidden from tourists, with a ton of cafes and bakeries and other little shops. I got the worst crepe I've had since I've been here (turns out it wasn't as well hidden from tourists as I thought, as they charged the same price for crepes that weren't freshly made, which I guess makes no difference to unsuspecting tourists) and was upset. It was still pretty tasty though. Isabelle got flan from a gourmet bakery. Much better choice. I decided I need some salt, stopped at a supermarket and bought a ready-made frozen tuna sandwich. I had to get back to the Foyer at that point for the Bike Tour, so Isabelle dropped me off at the Metro and we parted ways.

Bike Tour: next entry!! Stay tuned.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Lost in the Louvre

Okay, so this post will comprise three things:

1) my first time at the Louvre

2) my second lunch with a Princeton alum


3) my very Parisian day today

But first, I must answer my wife's questions. American chains in Paris are a heart attack because the prices are insane. For example, at my house (aka Starbucks), I get a tall soy frappuccino (no matter what kind) for about $4.70. Here, it would be about 5,30 Euros. Which means a bit more than 7 dollars. Which is a ridiculous amount to pay for a caffeine fix. I can proudly say that I have not been to a Starbucks once during my Paris sojourn. (Or a Body Shop store.) And second: the bakery down the street from me is, in fact, open from Tuesday to Saturday. My mistake. But there are other stores (many) that only open random times of the week and spontaneously take vacations during the year. (But these are small, privately-owned enterprises so I understand.)

Okay, on to the Louvre. Wednesday night I decided I was bored, the Louvre was open late and cheap after 6pm, so I had a quick dinner (..can't remember what I ate), hopped on the metro and walked right in to the Louvre. The metro stop actually opens into Le Carrousel du Louvre which is a collection of random department stores and a food court and gift shops and boutiques...basically a mall. You have to go through the mall, past the security check and past a Starbucks (sigh..the tempation) to get to the actual museum itself. I happily bought myself a ticket from a ticket machine (some American cut me in line. Really, American? Really?), got myself a map in French, and proceeded to get lost.

What I really wanted was to see the French Painting wings, which was marked on the map as being on the second floor. Technically, there is no second floor. In essence, the Louvre is separated into several wings, and each wing has a certain number of floors. So I was looking for the second floor, but of a specific wing. Which is why when I asked two security guards to be directed to the second floor, they gave me strange looks. The second security guard I spoke with happened to have a friend standing there, a very nice man who somehow knew the entire layout of the Louvre, offered to explain the directions to me in several languages, and finally decided to accompany me to my destination. Nice.

Thankfully, I only needed him to take me as far as the escalator of the wing that houses the French Paintings. I took the escalator to the "0" floor and then climbed a ridiculous amount of wide, empty, creepy stone stairs to the get to the second floor. And then I proceeded to go through EVERY SINGLE ROOM IN THE FRENCH PAINTING WING , determined to see every single painting in the three hours I had until the museum closed. So I made the full circle (square). But guess what? In those 2 hrs 45 min I only saw HALF of the French paintings. Damn prolific French artists. Sigh. But at that point, my legs were dead and all the paintings had started to look the same and I was itching to go back to the Foyer. (Btw, a map of the french painting wing:)

So the entire square labeled Sully was what I did. About 50 rooms of paintings. And it was ONLY HALF. Dear Lord. Many more trips to the Louvre to come.

So I went back to Ile St. Louis (which is where I live), walked straight to the best, oiliest, cheapest creperie on my street and paid 2 Euros for a delicious sugar/butter crepe and 1,50 for a small cafe au lait, walked to the Foyer only spilling minimal amounts and lazied away the rest of my night.

On to the next day. Most of it was boring, except for the lunch with another Princeton alum. This one was a Parisian, and did her Masters and PhD in Princeton in the Linguistics department, specializing in Chinese grammar. Now she's a researcher and a professor in Paris. We went to a really celebrated restaurant near where I work, called Le Buisson Ardent. Apparently it's been around forever.

She and I both order a "formule" which basically is a set price for a main dish and a dessert, chosen from a list of the day's offerings. We both ordered magret de canard avec des pommes de terre purees and I got a brochette de fruits avec du sauce chocolat for dessert. (Translated: some kind of duck with delicious mashed potatoes and a fruit skewer with chocolate sauce.) It was absolutely delicious. The meat was impossible to cut, so the table started shaking, water spilling, until finally we demanded sharper knives. The conversation was also delightful. She gave me a bunch of tips about getting around Paris, tourism, told me all the places I should go during my lunch break, etc. So I will definitely be doing and writing about those things in the weeks to come.

We exchanged business cards, and that was that. (And she paid. Good stuff.)

And then on to today. This morning I decided to go to find the Marche Mouffetard, which I had stumbled upon a couple of weekends ago but hadn't had time to explore. It's basically a cobblestone street with a ton of cute shops and cafes and all that jazz. I left pretty early but got lost, found another market, got scared because I didn't know how to buy stuff in an open farmer's market and left. By that time, the actual supermarkets were open. So I bought a ton of apples and a bag of chocolate marshmallows (they were on sale...). When I went to pay, the cashier got all frustrated and told me that I had forgotten to weigh my fruits. Because apparently you have to weigh your fruit, get a sticker from the self-service machines by the produce and then pay. Holding up the line, I went back to pay and the man working there (noticing my incompetence) simply did it for me. He even stuck the sticker on my bag. Peachy.

At lunch, I decided to do it Parisian style. Bought a super cheap demi-baguette for 43 cents at the BEST BAKERY EVER aka the bakery down the street from where I work, walked back to the Foyer, bought jam from the bakery down the street from where I live, went to the Foyer's cafeteria and had bread with jam. And yogurt. And then some fruit. Very sugary lunch. But so so good. This is my plan for all lunches from now on. Also, we always have leftover bread in a basket from breakfast at the Foyer so I might start just eating those instead of buying my own (although my bakery's bread is infinitely better).

MMM Paris. Okay that's enough for tonight. This weekend should be exciting. BIKE TOUR. FINALLY. Let's all cross our fingers.

Also, this is my Mummy:

And, wife: I did take pictures of the gross marshmallows (of which only one remains!!! VICTORY SHALL BE OURS). I will post them next entry. Promise.

A demain!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

"OMG, this is so cute!" (Our Day in Chartres)

Chartres. One hour southwest of Paris by SNCF train. Cute little town, famous for the most beautiful cathedral I have ever seen, Notre-Dame de Chartres.

On Sunday morning, I woke up at around 6:30 (after spending a grueling day traveling between London and Paris and all that tour-bus-hopping) and got ready for Chartres. I went with Maria and her friend Isabel, a Spanish PhD candidate, doing her studies in gothic architecture (hence the trip to see a cathedral).

We got there and immediately were shocked by the difference in pace from Paris. There were almost no people on the streets. All the shops were closed. Dead calm. And all the way uphill, we could see the towers of the cathedral, guiding us toward it. Not a very long walk, but still quite uphill. And, of course, the tallest structure in the town.

But first thing's first. Must talk about the craziest bathroom I have ever seen. Of course, as a tourist, the first thing you do when you reach your destination is use the public bathroom. This was an outdoor structure, with three stalls for women. Each stall had a light above it, green signifying empty and red signifying occupied. I went into an empty one and was immediately confused by the glistening floor. Is it wet? Or is the shine an effect of the blue ceramic tiles? Took a chance and put my bag down.

On my right was a silver touch pad on which there was a button I had to press to lock my bathroom stall. I pressed it and voila! Locked my door and turned on the red light outside. Genius. Did my thing, went to wash my hands. But this was no ordinary sink. No. This thing had three separate holes. On the left, an automatic soap dispenser. In the center, an automatic faucet. And on the right, an automatic hand dryer. So. Frickin. Cool. And this from a girl who has gone to the bathroom in at least fifteen different countries. And then, to exit, I had to push the button on the silver pad again which a) opened the door and b) flushed the toilet. AMAZING. I know. I sang its praises so much that Maria decided to give it a try. Haha.

Okay. On to the actual town. First was the Office of Tourism, where we got a map that outlined the most efficient walk to take through the town so as to see its cutest and most historic buildings. But we decided to walk up to the cathedral first, stopping several times along the way to take a ton of pictures (you would have too--this place was uber cute!!).

We get to the cathedral and see that it's being renovated at the front, so the effect of the facade is lost on us. Still, the main attraction is inside. We go inside to find that we've walked into Sunday Mass. Um, okay. So we found some chairs, sat down, and listened to the sermon (which Maria and I actually understood almost all of). At one point the priest asked the congregation to pray for "those who have walked into the cathedral simply to witness its attraction but have not felt the power within." Maria turned to me and said, "They're praying for us!!" Haha.

After Mass, we walked around a bit and discovered more photo ops, in the cathedral's garden, a museum just next to it, and the many, many steps leading up to the several entrances to the building.

Okay that's enough. The album is on Picasa. Afterwards, we went looking for tour information (Maria really wanted to have a guided visit by some random English man who came here 40 years ago to do research, ended up staying, and now gives very entertaining tours; alas, it was his day off). Bought tickets for the French guided tour at 3pm and decided to use our time to eat lunch and take a walk through the town. Tried to have lunch in the gardens by a tree but were covered in a tiny tiny bugs within seconds. So we left and had a walking lunch, then went on our walk through the empty, empty, very adorable town, guided by the highlighted route in our tourist brochure.

We also found several more many churches does a tiny town need, really?

And another one:

There was more cuteness, but that is for the web album. Finally, we walked back up to the cathedral for our guided tour. And man, did it last a while. The guide just kept talking and talking and talking. And the cathedral was even bigger than I thought! We just kept finding random nooks and crannies and small praying areas that I had not seen. Every sculpture, window and column had a story. It was a very long tour. As I said, the place is magnificent but I was not able to capture its magnificence on film, as there is basically no lighting inside. Sorry! Just imagine beauty. Or Google the cathedral. My apologies.

After the tour, we sat in on an organ concert. Beautiful ambiance, lots of somber audience members, very grandiose music. I started falling asleep, so within 10 minutes I left. Isabel had gone to explore the crypts and towers when we went to the organ concert so she met up with us twenty minutes later. At this point, I had already secured a very cheap location to get a drink, sandwich and dessert for only 6,50. I got my much-needed meal (with some fabulous coconut and raspberry sorbet, I might add) and Maria got a baguette and we were back on the train, back to Paris.

And that was my Sunday. Sorry it took so long to post. I have to actually work, you know. And go do more interesting things so that I can capture you all with my stories.

Tomorrow: Louvre, pt 1 and Lunch with an Alum, pt 2.

A demain!