June 30, 2013
On June 24th, we arrived in Paris on the Eurostar train, which went through the Chunnel, a tunnel under the English Channel (yikes!). At the taxi stand I asked about the fare (this is the advice of every travel book–don’t get into the taxi without negotiating a fare) and was told in French, ” There’s a meter!” The subtext was ” you stupid idiot.” So we took the taxi (24 Euros) to Hotel Niel and dragged our duffles into a tiny but well appointed room. We found out from the person at the desk (concierge? Receptionist? Person who hates Americans?) that everything was closed, that lunch is from 12 – 2 and dinner from 7 – 10 and that Barbarians who want to eat now (4:30) can find food at the Hippopotamus. Okay, not sure if we were supposed to take that personally, although we did have a nice late lunch there and the waitress was very pleasant.
In order to get a feeling for the area we walked a couple of miles down local streets and the Champs Élysées where we stopped for cafe au lait and profiteroles (17 Euros and lots of snotty attitude). Before I start to come off as anti-French, let me say that every French person I met or spoke with prior to the trip assured me that “once you get out of Paris everyone is nice.” We found this to be accurate.
The Champs Élysées was not what I expected. It’s a busy metropolitan area with beaucoup expensive shops and cafes, which are not called cafes. Cafe is a drink (coffee) and don’t you forget it-at least not while you’re in Paris. Car dealerships next to restaurants next to pharmacies, next to high end retail (think Cartier). After that little foray, we returned to the hotel and got ready to walk to the Eiffel Tower to wait for nightfall and see the fireworks that were scheduled to celebrate the start of summer.
Summer. A word that leads one to expect sunshine and clear skies, if not warmth. I’m not sure if the weather pattern in Europe has been unusual this year (we’ve been told that), but the appearance of the sun has been rare. In London we bought an umbrella and I wore jeans throughout our stay there. To prepare for the 2.5 mile trek, I donned all my warm clothes: jeans, a shirt, the black sweater that will have to be tossed when I get home and my jean jacket. It was not enough.
We stood by the beautiful Seine for two hours, watching the crowd, declining to buy models of the landmark, taking pictures of the Eiffel Tower as the sky darkened, refusing opportunities to buy (cold) wine or key chains, taking pictures for other tourists, and, finally, after midnight figuring out there would be no fireworks. We have a couple of theories about this. On the hour the tower lights up with special, sparkling lights, in addition to the regular lights. Could those be metaphorical sparklers? Or did we interpret “at midnight” too literally? A lot of the crowd left at midnight but maybe they were tourists also. I’ve since learned that time and distance are merely estimated. For example, virtually every destination can be reached in 5 to 20 minutes while wearing gorgeous and expensive high heels. Not so.
The next day we enjoyed our first continental breakfast ala France. Each place was set with a cup, napkin and silverware along with a basket holding a huge croissant. A long table set buffet style held the rest of the food (baguettes, sliced bread, raisin pastries, small chocolate croissants, little donut things, cereal, and boiled eggs). Closer inspection revealed a small refrigerator with cheese packages and yogurt. Coffee was served on a hot ring alongside hot milk. I’ve become fond of drinking coffee this way as it tends to be very strong, almost espresso; the milk makes it delicious and keeps it warm.
When Mike and I were traveling through Spain a few years back, we stayed in a large hotel in Granada which featured a huge breakfast buffet that catered to international,tastes. We noticed that the Spanish ate cold meats and cheeses, Germans chose eggs and sausages, the British stuck to kippers, eggs and toast with beans on top, and the Americans favored fruit, cereal, and eggs. The French tended to choose a baguette with a little cheese, a roll, a croissant, another roll, a pastry and a roll.
Right before I left home I received the results of a recent blood test. Cholesterol down (yeah!); triglycerides up. I wasn’t sure what that meant, so my doctor told me to cut down on carbs and sugar. “But I’m going to France,” I told him. A pause. “Well, cut down when you get back.”
On our second day in Paris, Mike and I explored the city, especially enjoying the Latin Quarter, while Noni and Dale headed to Versailles. Our third day would be packed with sightseeing so we decided to sleep in, absorb the ambiance of the city and continue carb loading… That night, on the recommendation of the gentleman at the desk we went to a local brasserie for dinner. While we waited to be seated I was sent to look at the menu posted on the wall. I got a quick glance at it, noticing that haricot vert, green beans, were 16 euros ($20). Perhaps this was a special main dish? Non. As the person in our group who took French in high school, I got to deliver the bad news. At this very casual restaurant, with sidewalk seating and nothing that warned the customer, a dinner for four was going to cost us about $500–600. Everything was ala carte. The most expensive main course was a seafood platter (119 €–you do the math); the least expensive was 65 € for duck leg tendon or something equally appealing. We left.
Later we wondered why the man from Hotel Niel, a modest establishment, would recommend this brasserie. I had asked him to suggest a cafe and he’d informed me that cafe was a drink. He had mimed drinking coffee in case I was too stupide to get it.
Since leaving Paris, people have used the word cafe to mean small place to eat and the word is on actually on restaurant signs. Just saying.
Next…our last full day in Paris, one cathedral, two museums, and many foot miles.