Our 2019 European Vacation — France

Day 4

Bathroom sign

Once again I missed the moment we crossed the border. By the time we stopped at a rest stop for lunch we were already in France. Ordering McDonald’s proved to be somewhat complicated. Instead of simply telling them what we want we were required to enter our order and pay through a machine, which wasn’t exactly intuitive. Lev wanted a McFlurry for dessert, but it was so oddly categorized (and how hard is it to place something under more than one category?), that we only found it on the last ditch attempt just before leaving. Sadly most of it ended up in the trash as our driver had zero tolerance policy for food on the bus. I had a small quinoa salad which was very good and some herring with potatoes which was not. The McDonald’s did not have the McBaguette JP told us about.

I found French wind turbines rather elegant. But the suburban high-rises we passed looked down right ugly. Reminded me of the apartment buildings on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. I remember wondering how such a beautiful city can build such ugly new housing. JP told us that those were not the good suburbs. I wonder what comes first — ugly architecture or poverty. The freeway looked like any other giant freeway. JP said cars had to take turns on which days they were allowed to go into the city based on their license plate numbers.

Our generic high-rise hotel was sitting on a wide but cozy tree lined street. There was an optional tour that would take us to some fancy restaurant and to the Eiffel Tower lit at night. But it seemed silly to spend $200 to on a place that had nothing I could count on Lev eating and the Tower we could take subway to on our own.

The Eiffel Tower appeared suddenly in a space between two buildings and Lev and I both kind of went, “That’s it?” It looked small, even though we knew we were close, and its light brownish paint made it look rusty in the early twighlight. It grew on us when we saw it lit in various ways later that night. And the next day. And the day after when we finally got to meet it in person.

A young couple stood in the same space between two buildings where the tower first made an appearance. I could hear that they spoke Russian, though couldn’t quite make out their conversation. I just looked them over. Both tall and slim, with dark blond hair. She was really beautiful with big blue eyes matching her dress. Her clothing and sandals looked simple, but she was very very tan. The expression “golden youth” came to mind. How much time does one have to spend lounging in the sun to give pale slavic skin a beautiful, even tan like that?

Finding a place to eat turned out to be a challenge. Yes in Paris. Near the hotel — Italian, Asian, or worse, American food. Oh, come on! French places a few blocks away — all meat and cigarette smoke. Lev said he can’t eat with the latter. Next day I mentioned it to our guide when he recommended eating where the French eat, and he explained that we should just go inside where smoking was apparently not allowed. I had no idea raw beef was a French staple. A few restaurants next to the Eiffel Tower subway station appeared cheap and untrustworthy. Wrapped baguette sandwiches in kiosks did not look appetizing.

We finally settled on a busy place in a row of restaurants near the tower that appeared to have a decent variety. A pasta dish for Lev, duck with potatoes for me. Escargot for an appetizer. They brought us strange tools and I had to Google how to use them. The snails were smothered in very tasty sauce and amazingly Lev really liked them.

He also liked the shells. We brought them home. It took forever to get the sauce out of them. Lev’s pasta tasted iffy. He filled up on my potatoes. The duck was better but there was too much of it. Whatever happened to small French portions? Lev was full, but still wanted a crape for dessert. By the time they brought it, he was fast asleep at the table.

For some reason it was hard at first to figure out which way the subway train was going. We never actually went in the wrong direction, but not without worrying that we would. Between Google maps and experience we were be riding like pros by the end of day three. In a meantime, I very much enjoyed the experience. Even without the air conditioning. Should have gotten a fan, like other women I saw. Should have gone shopping for those simple but beautiful dresses so many of them were wearing. And every night there were musicians coming on the train. Guitar. Violin. We were never close enough to know if they were asking for money.

Day 5

Lev’s first breakfast in France consisted of some candy I got for him from the jars by the entrance to the hotel restaurant. He compensated in the next two days with the omelets prepared in front of him even if they only had bell peppers and onions in them.

For the city tour and later Versailles we were given a local guide — a blonde Frenchman named Nicholas with a suspiciously unaccented English and slightly off putting air. Liked to criticize Macron. Being used to the kind of criticism usually leveled against European leaders here and perhaps, subconsciously, because of the way he looked and sounded, I was expecting it to be because he thought Macron too liberal. But no, he thought him too much of an urban elite, unable to understand the needs of the people.

Mandatory photo stop near the Eiffel Tower. You can’t have been in Paris and come back without a picture like that. It’s surrounded by a wall made of bullet proof glass, luckily barely noticeable. It’s sad to think it necessary. Nicholas told us that Eiffel Tower was meant to be temporary, like for 20 years, and that people thought it an eyesore. It was the tallest building in the world for 40 years. During WWI it was used by the military as a transmitter. Repainted every 7 years by specifically hired mountain climbers. The light brownish color is very deliberate. I wonder why.

Arch of Triumph was our second photo stop. Impressive to look at, it would have surely drowned in the surrounding traffic had it not stand so tall. Traffic is no surprise — 12 streets converged there. We learned that you could actually get right to it. And climb to the top! We made a plan to do just that during our free time. Hopefully we’d be able to look over the sculptures and stuff. Better than from that crowded patch of land across the street where everyone was all but fighting for picture spots, some tourists having the audacity to demand others get out of their picture. A sculpture of Napoleon as some kind of a Greek or Roman emperor. I didn’t know much about his life. I still don’t, except for what Nicholas told us. That he rose from the bottom to become general at 24. I suppose talent and megalomania often go hand in hand.

From there we rode through Champs-Elysees. I knew the name had the word “fields” in it, so I was expecting… something… at least some trees, something other than a wide street with expensive stores.

Random facts I remembered only because I took notes.

Nazi general Von Choltitz refused to blow up Paris landmarks as ordered and is thus seen as “savior of Paris”.

Right wing, left wing in politics comes from the right and left banks of the Seine river.

Louis XIII was last to live in Louvre.

Latin quarter is named after Latin language spoken by university students that had been living there.

They built a bridge out of stones from Bastille. Called it freedom bridge. Made me think how distorted the meaning of that word has become.

There are 1100 house boats on Seine.

There is a smaller version of statue of liberty facing West.

The city tour ended in Concorde Square. The place where the guillotine once stood. How many times in history did the people pick the wrongest monarch to kill? And then turned on each other? Now there is a humongous Egyptian obelisk. For no particular reason. I guess so that the huge blood soaked square doesn’t sit all empty?

Yes, another bathroom sign picture. We saw this one again in somewhere else, but Concorde Square was first. “MEN to the left because WOMEN are always right.”

Off to Versailles now. Through the tunnel where princess Diana died.

A dire need of an ATM machine (mainly so that we could tip Nicholas at the end of the tour, as instructed) gave us an opportunity to do a little run through a few streets of the town of Versailles. It didn’t feel like a place where people live, but they do. Nicholas told us that it’s is a traditional conservative catholic town. Makes sense for it to be one, I guess. We had to rush because we had a limited amount of time for lunch and one of the things I learned on this trip is that my picky eater kid can eat a lot of things, but will take a long time. Lucked out with a place that offered wonderful variety of savory crepes and tourist sensitive (read, fast) service.

The crepes appeared to have been made out of whole wheat flour and scallops on Lev’s came with body parts I’ve never seen before, but, amazingly, none of that stopped him from consuming them as is and with a fork and a knife. It was the highlight of my day.

Versailles is supposed to wow. With its painted ceilings and lavish décor. But I’ve seen it all before in St. Petersburg. Which was built later. It’s sad when having seen a copy desensitizes you for the original. It turns out the revolutionaries were business savvy. Instead of destroying the stuff in the palace, they sold it off to raise much needed revenue. Catherine the Great bought much of it.

The tour of the palace bored Lev. In between complaints he kept trying to figure out which Louis on portraits was which and marveling at Louis the 14th wigs. The wigs, apparently, originated from him starting to lose his once luxurious locks while he was still a young man.

I enjoyed learning bits of history and customs as we were going from room to room.

It took 49 years to build Versailles. Louis 14th took 7 baths his entire life. People believed that water can enter the body through the skin and make one sick. They were not entirely wrong. The water came from the river which was used as a sewer. He died at at 77 of a gangrene, possibly brought on by other health issues, like diabetes.

Louis the 15th was his great grandson. The 16th was a grandson of 15th.

Louis the 9th is the one known as St. Louis. He died of plague on his way to Jerusalem.

The royals had to give birth in public — so that it could be verified.

French revolution was triggered by American revolution — expenses of supporting Americans against the British.

Louis the 16th and Mary Antoinette had four children. By the time of the revolution only two remained. The girl was let go and was married off. The boy was kept in prison for 5 years until he died of severe tuberculosis and malnutrition. He was 10. Somehow what was done to the Romanovs started to look humane.

The Gardens looked beautiful. Bigger and way more tasteful than their Russian copy — Petergoff with its blinding golden statues. Would have been nice to spend more time there, but it was insanely hot. Lev took pictures. So, we didn’t make it very far.

Versailles Gardens
Versailles Gardens

A free evening seemed to be a perfect opportunity to fulfill Lev’s culinary wish — a ratatouille. Like the movie. JP spent a good 20 minutes trying to help us find a restaurant, calling places, etc. He explained that it’s not a restaurant kind of dish. It’s something people would whip up at home when they had a bunch of random leftover vegetables. Well, he doesn’t know my kid. Or me. He was also not searching right. We found a place that had it as a side dish to beef kebab Lev swore he’d eat and, of course, didn’t. Didn’t like the ratatouille itself much either. I couldn’t blame him — it was overcooked and swimming in tomato sauce. He also insisted on another order of escargot. These were called Burgundy and were huge in size. And he didn’t like them this time. A piece of shell got in his mouth and grossed him out. I ordered kidneys. The waiter asked me how I wanted them done and when I inquired about the most common way, he asked me if I knew what it was. I did, of course, I just wasn’t adventurous enough to eat them half raw. They were really good.

Our culinary adventure may have not have been very successful, but it brought us to the neighborhood we wouldn’t have made it to otherwise. With its super narrow cobblestone streets it was like a tourist dream, yet it didn’t feel touristy. It was also a somewhat Jewish neighborhood — there was a Jewish museum and a synagogue, both barely noticeable though. And a bunch of semi-fast food Israeli restaurants. As we wandered around in search of dessert — macarons or ice cream — we encountered street performers. Someone was singing what I knew from my Soviet childhood as an Italian partisan song. The dessert ended up being a gelato flower. With a macaroon on top. Someone got a brilliant idea that if you use a flat scooper, you can make flower petals out of gelato. They had a black currant flavor, which became my number one choice throughout the trip.

People. Eating. Everywhere. So many restaurants and all teeming with people. People standing around eating shawarma sandwiches. Talking, laughing, socializing. And I found my favorite thing about this city. It’s that vibe of calm. Like everyone is just breathing, light like a feather, floating through the air. No rush. No stress. If only I could learn from them instead of making my poor kid schlep to Plaza de Bastille station instead of a closer one just in case there’s something to see. When I heard Nicolas tell us about a bridge built from the rocks of Bastille, I didn’t realize that there was nothing left where the infamous prison once stood. Nothing.

Plaza de Bastille

Day 6

Louvre is a palace. Kings lived there. For centuries. You think you’d be entering it like a palace. Nope. You go through a mall. An actual mall with stores and almost a food court. And the entrance to the museum is hardly different from a department store. Or worse — a subway. And why exactly did they think a huge glass pyramid belonged is in the inner court? There is a smaller version of it in the center of the mall, except it’s upside down. For some reason they call it “inverted”. A number of us wondered — we couldn’t quite picture what an actual inverted pyramid would look like, but that one wasn’t it.

Our local guide was the opposite of Nicholas in every way — an overweight middle aged woman with a sweet smile and delicious accent. We swiftly crisscrossed the museum hitting what was considered “highlights”.

A windowless stonewalled remnant of the palace’s time as a castle/fort.

A giant sphinx.

The famous statue of Venus — how she ended up buried in someone’s field and the whereabouts of her arms being anyone’s guess.

I don’t remember the story of the winged angel Nike. And the whereabouts of his head. Didn’t stop him from inspiring a shoe and getting on the nose of a Rolls-Royce. The car company felt they had to make up some kind of a head for him though. I suppose it would be kind of weird otherwise.

Statues of two men facing death. The famous Liberty Leading People painting.

And of course, Mona Lisa. I didn’t realize she was so small. This little thing hanging there all alone in a big empty space with a mob of people kept at a safe distance, staring at her, moving side to side to see if she would famously follow. I am not going to pretend that I’ve succeeded in getting her to do it for me. Our group met at a passage space behind a wall behind Mona Lisa. And there, literally behind her back, our guide very matter-of-factly informed us that the reason Mona Lisa was so insanely famous was not because she was Leonardo’s best work, but because she was stolen in the early 20th century and it was a huge international scandal.

We could have left, but why would we? It was some 103 degree outside and even though the half a millennia old palace obviously didn’t have air conditioning, it’s floor vents and whatever other vents were doing a surprisingly good job keeping the place comfortable. Besides, when you are in a place like that, you stay for as long as your schedule and your preteen allow. And the preteen proved unexpectedly willing to explore and look at “beautiful things”. Beautiful indeed, even with missing limbs or, in case of one madonna, burn marks.

I just don’t understand why a real person, like, say, a Roman emperor would want to be immortalized in form of a naked statue. Speaking of immortalizing, Lev decided he really wanted to see this beautiful, colorful sarcophagus shown as one of the highlights on the map. But it kept evading us. We went through the ancient Egypt and all kinds of other ancient cultures, saw all kinds of other sarcophagi and mummies. Yes, we were following the map. But it turned out the exhibit was moved. Even knowing that we went through the ancient Egypt and stuff again. And again. And did I mention the stairs. Until we finally found the turn that took us to a whole other wing. The sarcophagus was indeed beautiful. I can’t prove it because it was behind glass and it was impossible to take a picture without the glare. I mean, I would have taken one anyway, but I have been denied the right to take pictures.

It took us so long that now we found ourselves having to rush to the Eiffel Tower for our tour. They sent me an email warning that going through security could take up to an hour and a half. Well, maybe if it weren’t so hot it might have, but in our case there was no line at all. Which lead to us getting there way too early and me spending way too much time freaking out that we were in a wrong spot. We weren’t. I also realized that we could have just stood in a relatively short line and gotten our own tickets, maybe even all the way to the top — if there weren’t too many people in line on the second floor. Granted, we would have to climb the stairs to the second floor (more like 22nd). But guess what, our tour was a “climbing tour”. On the first day of our trip back in Amsterdam I was in such a panic because all online tickets to the tower and even overpriced “tours” were sold out, and I thought it would be like the Anne Frank house — no advance ticket, no chance, and the only reason I chose an itinerary that included Paris was because Lev wanted to get on to the Eiffel Tower. So, when JP found this one for us, I did not even check the details. And it turned out these guys had no special access or anything. We could have stood in the same line (yes, we had to stand in line as a part of the tour) and have the same chance of the tickets to the top being available or as at that time — not. And we wouldn’t have to try to keep up with people who climbed the stairs like it was a walk in the park. We almost managed to do it to the 1st floor. By the time we started climbing to the second, I gave up and we went at our own pace — my pace. So, we missed most of what the tour guide said. Oh well.

We hung around the second floor for a while. Because it wasn’t really a second floor, but the middle of the tower, the view was excellent. We got our fill of every direction even if we found it near impossible to tell what was where. Oh well. Like what was this? A pool?

Bought a box of macarons and it became our lunch. We did buy a baguette sandwich back at the Louvre mall, but didn’t eat much of it. It was too hot to eat anything. The macarons were good if too sweet for my liking. Oh well.

We took the two story elevator to the 1st floor. It had semi-transparent floor, an ice cream stand, a fake green lawn where we joined many others, eating ice cream, looking out, and relaxing. The sense of calm I discovered yesterday was especially strong there.

Just steps away from the tower’s legs was a pond. With duck and little fluffy ducklings that kept trying to run away through the fence and had to be placed back. Lev was in heaven. If the Ferris wheel he’d been begging for weren’t waiting for him, he’d never leave.

Eiffel Tower ducks

We’ve gotten the hang of using the metro. A bus — not so much. But Google maps said it’s better to take a bus to the place where the Ferris wheel was. I am sure it was — if taken in the right direction. Perhaps we could walk there? Only half an hour? We bought some gorgeous refrigerator magnets — yes, those exist. Saw a bakery and bought a baguette and some cool pastry that was to be our dinner later. The baguette turned out to be very hard, no complaints about the pastry though. That’s what I call living.

We made it about half way when a bathroom emergency afforded us an experience of hailing a Paris cab.

The Ferris wheel was located next to Plaza de Concorde in a park that immediately struck me as a place I would have loved to spend a lot more time than we actually had. For Lev there was a completely unexpected gold mine — not just one mostly scenic ride, but a whole little amusement park. There was a ride that swings you way way up until you go upside down, a really weird one that looked like you are sitting peacefully about to watch some show, but then the entire set of seats starts to move in vertical circles — fast. There was even a water ride. And lines were short to none. Oddly the place only accepted cash, but surprisingly there was an actual bank ATM. Our timing for the big wheel couldn’t have been more perfect. The sun was setting. As we floated higher and higher in the air, we saw the city in this soft golden glow and everything felt like magic. A woman and her two young kids waved at us from the next gondola. And sharing that moment with complete strangers made it even more special.

Lev, of course, wanted to go on the upside down one. I was happy to oblige since he’d recently overcome his fear of riding with strangers — I wouldn’t be caught dead on a ride like that. But I drew the line at the water ride. €10 and a soaking wet child seemed to much to pay for it. Plus, it was getting late and we had to wake up early. We walked through the park towards the exit and there it was again — the vibe, that sense of calm, in spite of all the noise of the rides and screaming. People walking, standing, talking, and all as if floating just above the ground, unburdened by anything.

Day 7

Good bye Paris. I wasn’t terribly impressed by you at first, but I miss you already and we haven’t even left. I didn’t notice if the train station had a mini station for every platform. I just noticed how relatively small ours was, almost like a small town kind. Of course we got there way early. We were instructed to buy lunch at the train station, but how do you buy lunch when you are still stuffed from breakfast? I couldn’t even think about food. So, we ended up buying food on the train. It wasn’t very good. Oh well. I tried looking into the window, but French countryside looked pretty much like any other countryside. And then I missed us getting into the tunnel. Perhaps I was distracted by this weird commercial they kept running on the screen. The point of it was supposed to be to tell the tourists to “ask a local, not your phone”. Something like that. But it always seemed that the locals were only confusing the poor tourist. And on top of that in one of the mini-stories a guy appeared to end up spending the night with one of those locals and then having the paper with her phone number blown out of his hands by the wind. Huh? And in another local guys coaxed a reluctant girl into riding bikes with her and she ended up racing them and going to all kinds of places with them before waking up on a train, with them, looking like she didn’t know how she got there. I guess, that’s France.

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