Sunday, April 4, 2010

Tea and Jae... and Kae! in the city of lights

If Dublin has a pulse, Paris has grace; and such grace. At no time have my thoughts and words felt less adequate, or A Moveable Feast more impressive.

She is a lady: in the young woman standing outside her shop, "un café" in one hand, a cigarette in the other; in the older man in a tweed coat hopping on his bicycle, his thin scarf flapping in the breeze.

Chillin' at our apartment
We got an afternoon train to London, and the Eurostar to Paris, arriving in the early evening. We spent a few hours exploring the neighbourhood around our apartment that first morning. Our arms full of warm bread, and delicious meats and cheeses, we congratulated ourselves on this breakfast fit for any Parisian. One point on the local grocery store: the milk that doesn't need to be refrigerated seems to be very popular in Paris; it was all we could find in our neighbourhood. And I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it's all "facile à digérer." With the sheep's milk cheese, I was good to go!

The Sully wing of the Louvre
Fortune smiled on us as we ducked in and out of the rain that first day. One of our favourite ways to begin a trip is a city tour, to get our bearings and change our itinerary as sights grab our eyes. This trip was no different, and we had excellent (sheltered) seats on the double-decker bus for most of the tour. That done, it was time to see a bit of Louvre – with kilometres of galleries, we didn't kid ourselves about seeing more.

Looking down on the Sully courtyard
We'd planned to take one of the tour boats on the Seine that evening, presuming the weather cooperated. The rain was light as we left the Louvre, so we decided to have a bite to eat near the Pont Neuf quays and catch the last tour of the evening, around 10 p.m. The restaurant of the same name was warm and quaint, as were our hosts. Up to this point, Kae had been a bit self-conscious about her French – which Tea and I took as perfect, incidentally, and a life-saver on more than one occasion. At the end of our meal, Kae admitted as much to our hostess, who assured her that she expressed herself very well. I think that left her tickled for hours afterwards.

The next day we caught the Metro to Montmartre, in the eighteenth arrondissement. The view from the steps of the Sacré-Cœur was wonderful. Walking around the cobblestoned plazas, past cafe seats facing out on artists sketching folks and cutting their silhouettes out of paper, was more than a little surreal; similar to other experiences I've had – in Quebec City, for example – in that I could now understand what they were imitating. It was so natural here; like drawing breath, for them, I'm sure.

In Montmartre Cemetary
We stumbled upon the Montmartre Cemetary; literally an awesome sight: above-ground tombs and mausoleums, most more elaborate than I'd ever seen, stretching out to the horizon. The avenues through it are named, and compost bins for the many, many flowers sit at every corner.

Moulin Rouge was our next stop, in the heart of the 'red light' district. Obligatory photos taken, we decided to find some sustenance to get us through to the evening's entertainment: a fondue house that Tea had read about. Tea had onion soup – yes, Stephen, they drop the French part here :-) – and Kae enjoyed a cheese plate, as we took in the foot traffic; Paris really has some of the best people watching I've seen: everyone is so different, from their dress – formal or casual, it is always deliberate – and mannerisms, to their features; I could've been imagining things, but it seemed that I'd never seen such a variety of noses, chins, skin tones, facial hair... tall and lanky folks beside others so small you could only think 'miniature.' Silly, I know, but it's true!

The fondue house was fully booked, but the owner assured Kae that he would find a spot for us a bit later. We consoled ourselves with more wine at yet another brasserie, and by the time we returned, there was a significant queue. Thankfully, Kae is very memorable – as we all know! – and we were seated without too much fuss. Well, what a restaurant! I barely had time to take in the raucous atmosphere in what really amounted to a narrow room before a baby bottle of the vin rouge was thrust into my hand. Ah, hold on to your hat, I thought to myself.

I lost time that night.

I figure it's important that a writer acknowledge that up front. I remember moments right up to my head hitting the pillow, but many of them seem more like last grasps at dreams as I write this. I'm told I was very happy throughout, managing against all odds to avoid making a fool of myself. Thank goodness I had two lovely ladies looking after me, otherwise I surely would've left all my belongings behind as I hopelessly wandered the streets of Paris.

The next day was a bit rough.

I turned a year older, and felt all of those 365 days over the course of that morning. Then it was off to the Latin quarter, walking around the old haunts of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Orwell. The market streets were just as Hemingway described them so many years ago: narrow and chock full of carts offering fruit, cheese and seafood, with amazing pâtisseries and book shops in between. Oh, and a rack of rotisserie chicken, with the potatoes roasting away in the drippings tray at the bottom. (It smelled amazing!) And the vendors warmly greeting their regulars with a kiss on either cheek, and such joyful expressions that you'd swear they'd been years apart.

The Panthéon
We then made our way to the Panthéon and the Sorbonne, through streets full of young life. It was at that moment that the last of the austre grace that had marked my first day in the city melted away: yes, the city of lights can be elegant, but no one who walks through Montmartre or the clusters of students around the Sorbonne could fail to feel its warmth.

With our train scheduled to depart at 3 p.m., we spent our last morning shopping in the Galeries Lafayette, taking in the stained glass of that amazing ceiling to the main building, and ladies' accessories worth the GDP of small nations.

No, Tea, our luggage isn't that big. ;-)

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