Allez les Bleus!…I’m sure this phrase rings a bell to all of you European football aficionados (soccer, in the US). For those unfamiliar, it’s the French roaring cheer to applaud, inspire and energize the French national football (soccer) team.
I find it à propos to extend this rally cry to the entire nation and to honor the innocent citizens of the world whose lives have been lost or deeply impacted by senseless acts of inhumanity.
It feels frivolous to extol the virtues of traveling through France in light of the recent tragic events. But, if I stop sharing my experiences and the next person stops exploring the world beyond his own, and the next one, and the next one, then ‘they’ win, the cowards who cause such horror. So, I will continue to travel, to learn about other cultures, to meet people around the world, to share stories and hopefully, to inspire others to do the same.
My new fascination with France started seven months ago when I decided to relearn French. I studied French for six years during middle and high school, but never became conversational nor attempted to master the language. What a pity, I could kick myself! Since it’s never too late to learn, I started brushing up in January, which includes a daily text in French to a handful of friends who speak français. It’s actually a very helpful writing exercise, plus it makes me giggle! On the receiving end of those texts, my dear friends are clearly humoring me with their responses, maybe even accompanied by a friendly snicker. LOL! And I’m pleased to discover that not all has been lost, there are indeed bits and pieces of French that are wedged deep in the gray matter.
So what better way to practice a language then to pay a visit to the Motherland and immerse myself in all things French. Mais oui!
Arriving in the City of Light, as Paris is affectionately referred to, was surreal. Surreal in the sense that this trip was totally spontaneous and unplanned. The opportunity unexpectedly landed in my lap, and two and half weeks later there I was, standing in Charles de Gaulle airport awaiting ‘lil red’, my faithful red roller board bag. The kicker was that I was traveling with a friend who is French and used to live in Paris.
Goodbye guide books, Hello quaint and off the beaten path.
Although this trip was my second visit to Paris, I wasn’t well acquainted with the city. My first visit was in 2011, a 2 day cram-everything-in introduction to Paree. The upside of the cram session was that I had seen many of the iconic sites, with the exception of the Louvre and a few others, so I was less frantic about running around to the Eiffel Tower, to Notre Dame and everything in between.
Averaging nearly 20K steps per day, blowing up fit bits and the like, I finally understand why people fall in love with Paris. The architecture alone is very stately and regal, with impressive buildings that span entire city blocks, large plazas and beautiful views of the Seine dissecting the city. I could easily imagine the royalty of yesteryear being enamored with this city. The physical beauty coupled with the romanticized charm and simple things like the yummy pain au chocolat (chocolate filled croissant) make this city so dreamy.
Some of the sites I visited for the first time include Sacre Coeur – be prepared for the stair master climb!; Place Vendôme – known for its fashionable designers and super fancy hotels; Sainte-Chapelle – the stained glass is out of this world, and the Bastille area. Sadly, I didn’t get an chance to visit the Louvre yet again. I’ll take it as a clear sign that a third visit to Paris is a must!
Aside from the famed and brilliant spots that celebrate the rich history of France and the essence of Paris, two off the beaten path places that I loved seeing are: a. Statue of Liberty Replica and b. Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Lady Liberty’s little sister stands tall over the Seine in the 15th arrondisement (district), almost at the city limits. I wonder if she is lonely because there were no crowds! My hunch is that very few tourists know about this gem, and if they do, it’s not a high priority nor of great interest to non Americans. I really wanted to see this replica, mainly because 1. she’s so iconic for the freedom she represents, 2, she’s the historic and symbolic welcome to immigrants, such as my parents, and 3. it’s so unique to see Lady Liberty outside of Ellis Island. The Parisian community in the USA gifted this statue to Paris – she faces west, towards her big sister in NYC.
Père Lachaise is the largest cemetery within Paris and home to the graves of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Molière, Frédéric Chopin and many other famous and not so famous people. The site is quite eclectic and probably eerily spooky at night, definitely worth seeing; parts of it reminded me of the famed Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires.
It was unequivocally amazing to be footloose in Paris. What made it even more serendipitous was meeting up with two dear friends who were also in town. My former colleague from Oslo conveniently managed to arrange a trip to meet me…how wonderful! She used to live in Paris so I got to dine in her favorite spots and walk around areas that are special to her. My other friend from graduate school, who is a serious globetrotter, happened to be in Paris for business. I was lucky enough to join him and his colleagues for dinner and discussions about winches and off-road equipment – important stuff!!
By chance, France was hosting the UEFA European Championship 2016, which brought an added flavor to the streets of Paris. Packs of football fans, whether they be German, Polish, Croatian, etc…were frolicking in national pride, decked out in jerseys, painted faces and boisterous cheers. Train workers strike, air pilots strike, sanitation workers strike, heavy rains and floods, and the Seine rising to record levels were among the few events that added color to the adventure. Oh, the joys of travel!
The cuisine is clearly an attraction on its own. For some reason, I was on an escargot kick and was determined to taste test multiple preparations. Why not? Anything dunked in garlic and butter is a winner in my book.
And of course, the champagne and steak tartare could not be passed up. Mmmmmm! There is a reason I had to average 20K steps a day!
I love to visit cities, yet often times, the most memorable sites for me are usually in some random place, outside the hustle and bustle. After spending time in Paris, I traveled to the Alsace region in northeast France, which borders Germany and Switzerland.
The journey to Alsace began at Gare de l’Est, a huge train station in Paris. Everything was going just fine…until a moment of crazy.
We decided to grab dinner for the three hour train ride at one of the walk-up-and-order cafes sprinkled throughout the station. I was all set, ready to pay for my jambon-fromage sandwich and bottle of water. At the last minute I decided to add an apple to my order, the guilt of one too many pastries had probably set in. No problem, 7.25 euros. Perfect, ready to pay…..but where is my wallet? I had it in my hand after selecting my sandwich, but after adding the apple to the order, my wallet had disappeared. Poof. Gone.
Minor panic moment.
It wasn’t in my small cross body bag, which was unzipped showing nothing more than a pen, train ticket, passport, chewing gum and lipstick; and it wasn’t in the front pocket of my backpack, which was sitting on top of ‘lil red’, facing me.
Major panic moment. Heart racing.
Who the hell stole my wallet? And how did so called thief manage to sneak in and out of this space with nobody noticing? At this point, I looked at my friends and frantically exclaimed, “my wallet is gone!” Puzzled, they began to search my belongings. Neither the walk up cafe nor the train station was overly crowded, yet these things happen, in a split second. I looked around desperately, trying to find a so called thief running away with my wallet. Nada. Not a soul in sight moving remotely fast.
Imagine if a random bystander was running to catch a train, I might have started chasing that person. <Crazy person behavior>
For a brief moment, I zoned out to a situation of no credit card, no cash, no bank card…in all the years of wandering the globe, this has never happened to me! Ugh! What a major pain in the you know what.
I quickly snapped back to the current situation as the cashier was eyeing me to hurry up and pay. There was a line of 10 people behind me, calmly selecting their baguettes. The lady clearly did not speak English and was not aware that I was freaking out. And then the word for wallet appeared in my brain! I shrieked, “mon porte-feuille, mon porte-feuille”, the next thing I know she is rattling off in French, alerting all 10 people at the counter. They buzzed for a moment, looked at me, and unconcerned, continued selecting their items. During this commotion, which probably lasted a grand total of 2 minutes, my left arm was flailing about, searching for the wallet, zipping and unzipping my purse, opening and closing the backpack, etc… The right arm, stationary.
Then, my friend looked over and pointed to my right arm.
That object that had mysteriously disappeared, causing undue stress, happened to reappear. Apparently, I had strategically wedged mon porte-feuille under my right arm to secure it while moving down to the cashier, with my sandwich, to choose an apple. It was squarely placed in the pit-death-grip, where absolutely nothing can be pried away.
Yes, I felt like a total idiot….but we sure had a great laugh afterwards!
Moral of the story, don’t bother with the fruit, it can cause momentary amnesia. Although, I do recommend trying the pit-death-grip to secure valuables, just don’t forget where you put them!
The rest of my visit to Alsace included zero craziness, thankfully. The beautiful countryside is so lush green with quaint villages peppered throughout the region and vineyards cascading along the hills. The architecture in Strasbourg, Colmar and the surrounding towns is starkly distinct in design, similar to construction found in regions of Germany and Northern Europe.
One of the highlights for me was hiking in the Vosges Mountains. Being a nature lover, I thought the gorgeous green scenery was breathtaking and nourishing for the soul, especially with lakes, rivers and waterfalls tucked in between. At one point, I felt like belting out, “The hills are alive, with the Sound of Music…” Don’t worry, I spared the world of my non-existent vocal skills.
As expected, the food was exquisite. Whether it be the saucisson or the variety of cheeses, or the regional dish of Tarte flambée – a pizza of sorts, covered with creme fraîche, cheese, onions and bacon. Any of the above, paired with a glass of Crémant (sparkling wine)…simply delicious.
There are so many more places to visit throughout the country, wine to taste, bubbly to toast, pastries to eat, delicacies to try, mountains to climb; I barely scraped the surface, and I must say that after spending time in France, I’m even more pumped to master this language. Maybe I’ll move there….pourquoi non?
Sonia’s trivia: Who designed the Statue of Liberty and which city is he from. Hint: I visited his home town.