Finally, I am making it to the last destination on this journey, Paris. The United Kingdom has been a most gracious host, but it was time to move south. As I waited in the Eurostar waiting area with the rest of passengers for our boarding notification I noticed to prevalence of French on signs and in the conversations of though around me. I had a moment of sheer panic. I’m not sure why really, while my French was rusty, I had been to Paris before and had little problems and this time I had a friend. She was French. I would be fine.
CDG - Paris, France
Fate would have it that I would be seated next to a woman who was born and raised in NYC and now lived and worked in Paris. She told me this after telling me it was refreshing to hear my accent. After exchanging pleasantries we went our seperate ways once we reached Gare du Nord. Having no way to contact my friend Gabrielle I hurried off the train as fast as I could. We had been held outside the chunnel (tunnel that crosses the English Channel) due to traffic. How a train encounters traffic in a tunnel I am not sure, but it had delayed us by 30 minutes. I dragged myself and my lugguge down the platform to the exit, fearing that I wouldn’t be able to find her. That was unnecessary as I saw her as soon as I made it through the gate. I gave Gabrielle a big hug, it had been a while since I had seen her.
Gabrielle looked at my luggage and asked if I wanted to take a taxi. I said “yes”, my luggage was comically large at this point. We got into line for a taxi and Gabrielle outlined potential plans for the night. We could go out to dinner with her friends or stay in and order take away. We decided that I would get to her apartment at get settled first. Our taxi driver put my suitcase in the trunk and said something to me. And I just smiled and shrugged since he spoke to fast for me to understand what he had said. Gabrielle asked me if I understood him and I told her I didn’t. Apparently he asked if I had a body in my suitcase.
Gabrielle lived in the 12th arrondissement near St. Mande and Place de la Nation. She lived in the East at the complete opposite end of many of the major tourist haunts and monuments like the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe. It was a part of Paris I was unfamiliar with as I hadn’t made it to the east of the city last time I had spent time there. It was a quiet neighborhood but a short walk to a Metro stop and several bus routes. It was nice neighborhood, I liked it a lot even though the first time I saw it was in the dark. The taxi dropped us off at her apartment building and we went upstairs. Gabrielle had two roommates, one of which had two friends visiting from Italy. The roommate had met them in Chile. So all told, French, English, Italian and Spanish were being in one apartment at various times of the day.
My first night there, Gabrielle and I decided that we didn’t really feel like going out. So we ordered pizza and Gabrielle began the arduous task of finding a show on tv that could be dubbed in English. Beauty and the Beast was the only option and we watched an embarrassing amount episodes and ate pizza. One of her roommates came home to see us on the couch watching a crap show and headed to her room after introductions. Gabrielle followed suit soon after and I decided after a while to head to bed too. Mostly because I was starting to get invested in that show and I was feeling an immense feeling of personal shame.
Gabrielle had things to do during the day so she left me her key and me to my own devices. I slept in to 11:30 am. This is something I would do the for the rest of my trip. Only when I got back home did I realize my over sleeping and general lack of appetite was because I was actually sick and not jet lagged. However, I think the fact that I thought I had jet lag was only reason why I was able to go about my trip with much thought.
On my first official day in Paris, I eventually got myself together and headed off. I walked around her neighborhood to get a feel for the area and orient myself. After a while I headed to Place de la Nation. I got my visitor’s pass for the metro and I headed west. My first stop would be the Arc.
I would wander up and down the Champs Elysees window shopping the upscale shops that litter the street. Eventually I would settle down to a street restaurant and each lunch and people watch. People watching is a national past time. In fact most cafes and restaurants have sidewalk seating with chairs facing towards the street in rows, much like what you would see in a theater.
This is how I would spend my days. Since I had already been to Paris once before and did the major monuments and tourist things like cruising down the Seine, this allowed me just to amble. I would get up, get dressed and pick a neighborhood and just get a little lost. Take a back street or winding alley and see where it would take me. Gabrielle would give me ideas of places to go, like she sent me to Galeries Lafayette which is this huge upscale department store. One day I loitered around the Jardin des Tuileries (Tulieries Garden) and then in the evening we met at Angelina a popular tea and dessert room for pre-dinner sweets and my first macaroon (chocolate for the win). Another day I went to the Trocodero and sat on a bench eating a croque monsieur (grilled ham and cheese) and looked over at the Eiffel Tower. In the evenings I would head back to Gabrielle’s apartment to meet her. Nights were filled with acostic guitars and french singalongs, wine and cheese and nights that that continued into the the early mornings. Sometimes they would slip back into their native tongues and I would sit there and watch the spectacle. I was always amused because they were unabashedly stereotypically French and I was allowed into this exclusive club. Observing the French in their natural habitat. Gabrielle would roll her eyes and comment on just how French everything was. Days were spent wandering and nights were spent with wine and good company.
My last night was spent having a Shabbat Eve dinner with Gabrielle and her parents. I participated in the Jewish dinner and joined in on the dinner table conversation. It was a nice way to end my stay, I was welcomed into her home just like I had been welcomed into the country. The next morning before dawn I would say my goodbyes to Gabrielle who woke up to see me out and her roommate who had just stumbled back in from a night out. I took my lugguage and dragged it to the bus stop to catch the 351 bus to Charles de Gaulle. I would pick up a drunk Frenchman out of the street only to see him stumble around and fall into another one. My bus ride would take an hour and I was guided by a nice woman heading to her job at the airport. My flight would be smooth and full of free and unintentional perks like free whiskey and extra leg room. I would say “Bye Bye” to France, to Europe to the people and places I had met and seen and “Hello” to the world I had always known. I was thankful to my tour guides/hosts Mike and Gabrielle for welcoming me into their cities and homes as well as into their lives. Without them this trip wouldn’t have been as successful or as meaningful.
So when fate gives you the opportunity to go, just go.
New Years in Edinburgh was a complete blast. Mike was great and I got to meet his friends who were also wonderful and super welcoming. Also they bought me a lot of drinks whenever we went to bars…so I love them. I would spend the first of the year doing some last minute sightseeing and souviner shopping because on the 2nd, I would be heading south.
The morning of the 2nd, Mike meet me at my hotel and we had breakfast before we went to Edinburgh Waverly Train Station. Mike tried to talk me into an IRN BRU which is a weird orange colored soda that they sell in Scotland. I tried it for the sake of trying it but I regretted it. It tasted that like orange flavored syrupy cold medicine. It brought back all the worse childhood illness memories. He insisted it is great for hangovers…I insisted it isn’t particular good for anything aside from removing paint from walls. A few minutes later as we waited on the train platform my train came pulling in and I loaded up. Mike and I made faces at each other through the train window as I pulled off. Bye Bye Edinburgh!!
The ride south to London would be over 4 hours. I had splurged for a first class seat and it was well worth it.
It was like a efficient way to see the “English Countryside”. I always thought that was just some phrase you heard in movies or TV shows set in England. Like this mythical land of rolling hills and sheep and cliffs. Well it is. It is frankly beautiful and I can see what the big deal is about being going to see it. Also there were a lot of sheep. They really like their sheep.
LDN - London, England
Eventually we arrived in King’s Cross Station…also known to many as the one from Harry Potter. Apparently there is a little cart sticking out of a brick wall somewhere as a nod to the books, but I didn’t bother to look for it because I am not a child. Plus my luggage was to heavy to be dragging it around looking for a fake train platform. I found the queue (yeah I said it) for the taxis and hopped in. I was staying in the Mayfair area of London which was on the West End. My hotel was on a side street that bordered Green Park where Buckingham Palace is located. Needlessly to say, I scored a pretty prime location.
My taxi driver was pretty awesome. He talked about his family and how they immigrated to Britain from Africa. After the seemingly obligatory statements of disbelief of me traveling alone, we talked about race in out countries. Because clearly that’s what you do in London cabs, talk about issues related to racial inequality and social justice.
Once I arrived at my hotel and when I was able to actually get to my room (the people before me decided that check out times were flexible) I was all set to go out and explore. Then I sat down on my bed. I don’t really remember what happened next. I may have taken a luxurious bath and may have had delicious steak for dinner…but I do know that I didn’t leave again that same day.
The next morning after sleeping almost to noon again, I got up and got dressed and decided to head north to the Camden Markets. I was only going to be in London for two full days so I had to plan accordingly. After procuring an oyster card (why its called an oyster I really don’t know) the fare card for the Underground I was on my way. I have to say the Underground is really pretty easy to navigate and you never have to wait too long for a train to come. I got to the Camden Town tube station with little issue and made my way onto the high (main) street. It had been raining hard when I had left my hotel and as I got to the street at Camden the rain hadn’t quite made it north. That would change after 5 minutes of walking around. The rain would come down hard on the little market. Thunder rolled off in the distance as rain and wind belted the plastic roofs. I moved from stand to stand attempting to browse their wares for interesting presents to myself and others.
I would find a few things and haggled (which I am starting to get fairly decent at - learned a lot while in China). After a while the rain was too much and a took shelter in a store that sold bongs, luggage and magnets. I bought I few magnets since I was loitering and waited for the rain to pass. Once it did, I strolled around the high street. This part was a little more grittier than where I was staying. Mayfair has a respectable air about it since it is so close to the Palace of the Royal family. Piccadilly Circus is a short walk (or one tube station) in one direction while Hyde Park is a short walk to the other. Camden, however, was real, not to say Mayfair wasn’t real, but Camden seemed lived in. In the distance you could make out a warehouse possibly used to unload ships that came up on the Regents Canal. This used to be a bustling center of port but now its streets were littered with stall markets, stores extolling the virtues of punk rock, pubs and interesting people milling about.
I would eventually make my way back to Mayfair as I was getting hungry. I would eat lunch and dry off back at my hotel. I had visited London for a day a few years back and done one of those double decker bus tours, so I had seen many of the big tourist attractions already. I decided that this time I would take the opportunity to walk around and see London at night. So after drying off and grabbed my camera and headed down to the river Thames. I would get off the train at Westminster which is located right next to the Parliament Building and Big Ben on the north side. I would take the evening to leisurely stroll along the river’s south side all the way to the Tate Modern museum (1.5 miles away). London is really beautiful at night. Seeing the building lit up and seemingly hover over the blackness of the Thames is a sight. I walked along a path right on the river and took it all in. I came across a cool skate park that was created underneath an elevated walk way next to a building. The once gray concrete was now a kaleidoscope of colors as taggers and graffiti artist made it their own. Young teenagers with bikes and skate boards did tricks as people looked on.
There were restaurants and little boutiques along the river. I would stop occasionally to take a picture or two but my goal for the evening was to make it to the Tate Modern. I did eventually and went inside. Now the really big thing I enjoy about London is that their museums are free. They usually ask for a donation of 1 to 5 pounds but other than that it is completely at your discretion. I chose the Tate Modern because last time I was here, I spent a lot of time in the National Gallery which houses more traditional portrait art. I prefer modern art as I appreciate the creativity. That is to say, when the art is good. I have to say, I was a little underwhelmed by the Tate. The building itself is brilliant but the displays didn’t move me. I found myself staring at things incredulously wondering how this even got into a museum. I mean art is subjective but some of it was trying too hard. Either way, I was glad I went. I had realized that Shakespeare’s Globe Theater was nearby so I decided to walk over and check it out. I grabbed so hot chocolate from the museums cafe and headed over. The Globe was closed at this point (it was actually really late…however some museums in London stat open to 9:30 pm which is great if you want to avoid crowds), but I found a seat nearby and finished my hot chocolate and I looked at it and listened to the waves of the Thames behind me. Having decided I had done enough I ambled back across to the north bank and found an Underground station and headed back to my hotel.
The next morning I woke up the next morning early enough to indulge in my complimentary continental breakfast buffet. I could eat all the cold things apparently, but if I ventured to the hot buffet I would get charged. No matter, English breakfast honestly doesn’t do much for me. I’ll take a good old American breakfast anytime, I mean how hard is it get a bagel here. Hard actually. Really hard, which makes the fact that they have smoked salmon all over the place like putting salt in the wound. I made due by requesting cream cheese and putting it on my toast and putting Salmon on top. I thought this was a really ridiculous thing I was doing, until I saw it in one of their sandwich shops and realized I am more of a Londoner than I thought.
The goal for the day was to go shopping. I had completely slacked off on Christmas shopping and used my going to Europe immediately after Christmas as an excuse. Now I was paying for it by buying everyone’s Christmas presents in Europe. I had done some shopping in Scotland. However, I must point out that I don’t usually gender cities/countries, but Edinburgh was a breeze for getting stuff for guys. It has a masculine sense about it, despite the sheer amount of skirts. So I was looking to London and Paris for the ladies on my list.
I was told by the hotel staff that Oxford St. was the place I needed to go for shopping. Using my map I plotted out a course. I would walk on Piccadilly towards Hyde Park, up Park Lane until I got to the Marble Arch and then walk down Oxford St. It was a nice little walk as I passed by interesting monuments. I took pictures of some including a WWII one. When I got to the corner and Wellington Arch I realized that I wasn’t quite sure where Park Lane was. I stopped a really cute guy for directions and it turned out he was in London for the day and was a bit lost himself. He tried to help me the best he could and we stood in talked for a few minutes. Once I figured out we weren’t going to be making out anytime soon I said my good byes and went back to figure out where I was on my own. After a few moments I oriented myself and found Park Lane. Park Lane is littered with expensive residences and luxury car dealerships. I was also picking up a faint smell of delicious. I followed it to a Chinese restaurant of all places. It was a pretty swanky place (I got charged 5 pounds/ ~ 8 USD for a bottle of water - I was super salty about it) and the food was really good. I got the chef’s tasting menu and had dim sum, duck pancakes and beef on a nest of friend noodles. The service again sucked as the waiters ignored me completely for the first minutes I was there because they assumed I was waiting for someone instead of asking me. Once I called them out on it things improved slightly. While the food was good and I was full, I wouldn’t go there again.
Finally I made it to Oxford St. It was packed, apparently everyone had the same idea. The fact that there were sales in every store didn’t help matters either. I looked through a few stores and picked up a dress and blouse for myself but didn’t see much in terms of souvenirs and gifts for others. Additionally, London is expensive. Granted the USD is taking a beating compared to the English Pound, but I realized that stuff is just expensive for the sake of being expensive. It was like London took the prices of things is the States and just replaced the dollar sign with a pound sign. That doesn’t sound bad until you realize that a thing of body butter at The Body Shop is on sale in London for 5 pounds while it is 5 dollars in the states. Well you might think, pounds, dollars who cares it is both five. It isn’t, 5 pounds was roughly 8 US dollars. So i found myself doing a lot of math on things as I shopped. I would compare how much it would cost me to by the same thing or similar item in the states and more often than not I was was paying more for it. For a shopper that is depressing. United States Economy…get your life together.
Once I was done on Oxford St. I took the tube back. I relaxed for a bit before going out for another night stroll. The previous night I had made it close to London Bridge but didn’t quite make it, so I thought I would tackle things from east to west this time. I took the Underground to the London Bridge stop and made my way to the street. Looming above me was the “Shard” building. It really does resemble a shard of glass piercing the sky. Reportedly it also melts cars if the sunlight hits it the wrong way.
While on London Bridge I took some pictures of the view as well as Tower Bridge. Fun Fact: Tower bridge is the one with the “towers”…it isn’t London Bridge. London Bridge is the bridge next to it without towers. Please don’t confuse the two. You would be astounded by the number of tourist who think Tower bridge is London bridge. I suppose it is an east mistake since Tower Bridge is the better looking of the two and you would assume if there was a song about a bridge the bridge would be ornate. The night was still early and I decided to head to Piccadilly Circus. This is one of the few spots and London that are pretty recognizable even if you have never been there. I thought it would be worth to see at night. After walking around for a bit I decided to head back to the hotel to pack I would be leaving for Paris the next afternoon.
The next day I packed up the last of my things and went to check out. I didn’t have to leave for St. Pancras Station until about 2 so I had time to walk around for a bit. I decided to make a run to the Tate Britain museum. This museum focused more on history and cultural anthropology (things that interest me). Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time to really take in the full museum so I had to head straight for what I was interested in seeing. I head for the Egypt and early civilizations exhibit. On the way, I strolled through an exhibit on the history of money which is always interesting. The museum was crowded, as you would expect on a Sunday so it hampered my viewing. However, I did see some interesting things.
I hurried back to the hotel and caught a taxi to the international train station. After passing through immigration and security I waited for my train to start boarding. It was then I realized that I hadn’t bothered to brush up on my French at all…
Oh well, Paris, France…here I come.