27 April 2011

It’s Not About the Money, Part One, Episode 2: They Speak Spanish in Paris?

Hello, friends, and welcome to Day Two of our Easter break adventure! (Day One is back here. Today's post is really ridiculously long, but it's half pictures, I promise!)

Yesterday, Josh treated you all to our adventures actually getting out of England and across the Channel to Paris, and also to a wee glimpse of our hostel and the neighborhood immediately surrounding it. For those of you who have had the honor of experiencing St. Louis anywhere south and west of Tower Grove after dark…yeah, it was a bit like that. Just like home, really.

To get back to the story, though – we survived our first night in the ever so aptly-named “Friends Hostel,” and didn’t even have much of a problem with the language barrier…the French language, anyway.
We hadn’t really thought of it before, but most of our closest foreign encounters were with people in our hostel, and not a one of them tried to speak to us in French. On the contrary – I think every one of our 12 roommates that first night was from a Spanish-speaking country.

(Right now, I would like to give a shout-out to Dr. Carol Marshall, whose Spanish 201 class last semester forced me into more real-life conversational Spanish than any class before, and made me like it. Thank you, Professor Marshall!)

Hostels are really good places to meet people. All you have to do is be willing to risk looking like an idiot. In this case, that meant me and my horribly broken schoolchild Spanish trying to carry on a conversation with two guys from Argentina (Marco and Jose, I think), whose English was at least as bad as my Spanish. In retrospect, it was kind of hilarious – all of us apologizing for our lack of vocabulary, waving our arms like really bad mime artists, and dropping our articles all over the place. I felt a bit of a moron, but sort of proud of myself afterwards, and Josh (who was sat there being more or less bewildered the whole time) says it really inspired him to learn to speak another language. So that’s good.

The next morning, we were up bright and early at 7am (me with a sore throat and clogged head that would, alas, get steadily worse as the trip went on), up and out the door before anyone else in our room had even started moving. (They were probably glad to see us go, too. Someone, who shall remain nameless, set his alarm and then slept through it buzzing for half an hour.) Of course, it wasn't until we had set excitedly off for the Sacre-Cour that it occurred to us to wonder why we were even out this early, since none of the food places were open yet. Minor setback. 
But, not to worry! We would climb the incredibly steep hill up into the Montmartre district (that would be the historically artsy quarter, appropriately located just handy to our ghetto neighborhood, with the Sacre-Cour right on the edge between the two), visit the Sacre-Cour, admire the view and be off to the next site, all before breakfast! Surely we would find something on the way! And we were young, healthy, energetic individuals! We could do it!

So we were quite perky and optimistic as we started up that hill, sporting our cameras and wide-eyed expressions. That’s probably why Magic Bracelet Man spotted us so easily.
Of all the people who tried (and in another notable case, succeeded) to trick us out of our money, Magic Bracelet Man was my favorite. He homed in on us with the speed and pinpoint accuracy of a Tomahawk missile, and a flood of aggressively cheerful chatter that can only be described as genius. One second we were saying our polite “bonjour”s; the next, he was holding Josh prisoner with some colorful bits of yarn and a long involved explanation about how the bracelets he was giving us were good luck, how they would (I quote) “not let nobody take your woman away from you”, and something involving a lot of Lion King quotes that I seriously suspect he threw in just because we were Americans and one of us was black, and you have to establish some kind of cultural connection with the target, right?

For two magic good-luck bracelets, we (that is, Josh) ended up paying 5 euro – it would have been 10, ordinarily, but he liked us so much that he gave us a deal. Nice of him, wasn’t it? I think it took us about ten minutes to stop reeling after he finally went away – welcome to Paris!
Nevertheless, the Sacre-Cour was more than worth it. The signs asked us not to take pictures inside (a request that we encountered regularly on our trip, and we’ll have plenty to say about how well anyone paid attention to those signs, later), so I can only show you the exterior, but it is truly lovely.

Supposedly, the view from up here is the third-best in Paris, after the top of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc d’Triomphe. It has the advantage, however, of being free. Also they’ve got a handy map that tells you what you’re looking at, which proved useful for orienting ourselves later.

We had decided that our first day in Paris would be a relatively chill one; we’d just stroll around and see what we could see, get a feel for the distances and so on. We really weren’t prepared for how small the city was, though! That probably sounds strange to say, but consider that we’ve been in London all semester…and I’ve recently found out that while London has an area of over 600 square miles, Paris is only about 40. Which would explain how we managed to walk most of the interesting bits in a day.

I wish we’d been able to see more of Montremarte, but as I said, it was all closed up tight while we were there. (Although there were, incidentally, soldiers roaming the streets behind the Sacre-Cour with automatic weapons. Why? We don’t know. We just tried to look harmless and didn’t make eye contact.)
We did, however, see the Moulin Rouge.

And the national Opera house.
High fives!

Stop creeping, Josh.

And the (huge! sprawling!) park in front of the Louvre.

No, this is not the same pool. This is a different pool. They just had them, you know, scattered about, the way some people have birdbaths.

Why yes, those are my tired and dusty feet. WHAT OF IT?

And, of course, a number of impressive monuments, including an obelisk (complete with hieroglyphs) near the Louvre gardens, a statue of Charles de Gaulle, and Moliere.


We also ran into a lot of stately old churches, many of them fallen into disrepair around the edges, which was sad to see. A lot of the historic cathedrals (including the Sacre-Cour, but not Notre Dame, which is, unsurprisingly, doing quite well) in Paris seem to be struggling for funding right now, for roof and stained-glass window repairs and upkeep of the organs especially. Of course, this is an atheist nation we’re talking about, so it’s difficult to say how many of them will actually get the money they need to keep running. We explored around a couple of them – bird droppings, broken windows and homeless people were very much in evidence, but even at mass-time, the places were echoing with neglect.

In sharp contrast, the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, which we walked up to get to the Arc d’Triomphe, was bright and shiny and bustling with people. No wonder – it’s the second most expensive strip of real estate in Europe, with some of the annual rents running in the millions. (Yes, I got this info from Wikipedia. Have a look yourself; it’s kind of astounding.) A lot of luxury stores crowd this street – I remember noticing Louis Vuitton, Swarovski and Chanel in particular, but after that point I think my brain may have gone into information overload.

(Another thing: it was also along this avenue that I pretended to be an HSBC bank patron so that they’d let me in to use their bathroom – yes, there is a fee to use public restrooms in Paris, and they’re horrifically nasty to boot. The front desk people didn’t speak English, though. You know what one of them did speak? Spanish. Of course.)

An interesting thing about statues and monuments in Paris: they are enormous. It may seem like an odd thing to point out, but seriously, the Louvre has at least a hundred stone people standing in a big long line on the edge of the roof, and even from the ground, they looked like Titans. I was afraid one of them might jump down and smite me. They’re much more dynamic than your average English monument, too – in Hyde Park, the statues seem to say, “Yes, here I am; I’m a very important historical civil-servant type person so they gave me a statue, isn’t this all very nice and proper?” Whereas in Paris they’re all like, “COWER, BRIEF MORTAL. I am so incredibly holy/powerful/majestic that your puny eyes might pop out just from looking at me. You don’t even KNOW.”

Oh, and also – there were sandwiches for lunch. Amazing sandwiches.

I love French baguette sandwiches. Everything is so fresh.

(There were also fantastic apricot croissants for breakfast, but we forgot to take pictures of them, so you’ll just have to use your imagination. Suffice to say, though, that my mouth is watering just telling you about them.)
All in all, it was a good (if exhausting) first day. We spent all day outside, it was sunny, it wasn’t too crowded, and the French people were nice to us! What more could you ask?

Tune in tomorrow, when Josh will tell you about how it all suddenly went Spectacularly Awful.


  1. Where do I begin, well let first say I got a kick out of the language barrier and Magic bracelet man..omg totally in tears regarding th 'Lion King' remarks from him...
    2nd , thank you for the wonderful pics of the Sacre-Cour and the Opera House, The Louvre and the Arc de Trimophe...all so beautiful and I know breath taking in person. Im so proud of you Lauren all that you are able to expereince. Please make sure you take all in, for what you are able to expereince happen once in a life time. May God continue to bless you and Josh and keep you all as you are away

    Love Audrey

  2. Ah, I love this series... :D Keep up the great blogging!

  3. Thank you for the encouragement, ladies!


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