Sunday, May 07, 2006

Paris 1999 - The First Time

29 April, 1999 - Our reservation at the Hôtel Louxor (recommended by Geoff's friend Adolphe) was confirmed and we summoned the airport shuttle. We thought it would be less expensive than a taxi, but that turned out to be untrue. We had no trouble checking in and were soon on our Continental flight to Newark, New Jersey where we would get our connecting flight to Paris. We were both very excited. The airport in Newark is huge, but we found our terminal with a minimum of trouble. By 8:30PM, we were on our way. Robb drank a lot on the flight and pretty much slept all the way over. I couldn't sleep at all, though I was really tired.

We were on the ground, taxiing toward the terminal by 9:45AM Paris time (3:45 AM in Fort Lauderdale). But the plane came to a complete stop before we got to the actual building and I thought that maybe we had to wait for a space to open or something. Then I noticed the other passengers getting up and getting their carry-on bags from the overhead lockers. I stood up and looked down the aisle, where I could see some people leaving the plane. It turned out that we were being loaded onto a really cool bus that somehow lifted up to the door of the plane and after it was full of people, it went back down to being a regular bus and took us to the real terminal. The airport wasn't much to see and seemed to be under construction everywhere I looked. I saw a small jet on the runway that looked like the Concorde except that it was so small. But, sure enough, that was the famous Concorde. It was a neat looking plane but it was kind of disappointing that it was so small. When we got to the terminal building, the bus again lifted up and we got off onto a ramp into the building. I had always heard that getting through immigration, especially in France, was a long, grueling affair. I don't know about anyone else, but we had no problem at all. The immigration officer was very polite, he just stamped our passports and wished us a pleasant stay in "la belle France". Then we followed the crowd to pick up our luggage. We waited and waited but none of our bags arrived. We even tried a couple other places thinking that maybe our luggage had come in on a different plane. But no luck.

Well, I had joked about it before we left, but the sad fact was that they had indeed lost our luggage, and the only thing we had was two small carry-on bags with toilet articles. Luckily, we had worn our coats, because it was a bit chilly. The girls in the lost luggage department were very nice and promised everything that could be done, would be done. It was close to noon when we finished, so we walked over to the customs area but no one was there, and we just walked through into the terminal.

Of course, everything was in French. I was surprised at how much I recognized and dismayed at how much about which I had no clue. We found an ATM machine and got a thousand francs each (about $143 US). Then we decided to call the hotel to let them know that even though we were late, we were in France and would be arriving shortly. We went out, found a taxi and drove into the city.

Everything was so beautiful.....and old. Most of the buildings we saw were older than our country. When we got to the Hôtel Louxor, Claude (the owner) was surprised to see us. He had misunderstood my phone call and thought we were cancelling our reservation.
We got it all sorted out and, with our key in hand, took the elevator up to our floor. Wow, what a surprise! The elevator was tiny. We joked about how it was a good thing they had lost our luggage, because we wouldn't have been able to get the bags and us into the elevator. We were in for another surprise because the room wasn't much larger than the elevator. But it was clean and the bathroom, though smallish, was nice and had a shower (of course, there's no way they could have gotten a tub in there). The building was obviously very old and we felt sure that the bathrooms were added quite a while after it was built. Also, there was no closet, just an armoire that took up a lot of space. Between the armoire, the bed (a double), a small table and the bathroom, there wasn't much space left. Definitely not the kind of room in which one would want to spend a lot of time.

We rested for an hour or so, freshened up a bit and decided to go out and see what kind of clothes we could find just in case they didn't find our bags. I had a map of the city, but at this point, it really didn't matter because I wasn't really sure where we were, since I couldn't find our tiny street on the map. We left the hotel and turned left. We walked to the next street where we were confronted with the problem of going left or right. We chose right. We noticed a small restaurant and thought that would be an excellent choice for our first dinner in Paris - Bistro Au P'tit Bouchon. We continued down the street and came to what seemed to be a major street, on the corner of which there was a beautiful old theatre (Théâtre de la Renaissance) and a large arch (Porte Saint Denis), which we immediately adopted as 'our arch'.

We passed a lot of clothing stores as we cruised down the avenue, which changed names every three or four blocks, but while the clothes seemed to be really nice, they all seemed to be a bit overpriced. We came upon a store with a big "Levi's" sign and thought we would check it out. As soon as we entered, we were pounced upon by the lone salesman. He was a bit obnoxious in that typical, overbearing salesman way, but the prices were good and the clothes were nice. We ended up buying a couple pairs of jeans and a couple of shirts each. We walked back to the hotel, deposited our new clothes in the room and set off to explore the area.
We left the hotel and walked down the avenue to the left. That brought us, after a couple of blocks, to the Place de la République, a large square surrounded by lots of interesting looking restaurants. It was getting late and we were tired. We had now been up and about for nearly two full days.

We walked back to the hotel and took a short nap before going to dinner. Bistro Au P'tit Bouchon was a small place with seating for only about twenty to thirty. It was apparent that we were the only non-Parisians in the place. It was there, also, that we learned our first lesson about French cuisine. When ordering fish, if it doesn't indicate 'filet', it will be a whole fish; tail, fins, head, everything. But it was delicious. We went back to the hotel and tried to watch a little TV, but we both fell asleep after only a few minutes.

30 April thru 5 May - Since I am writing the first six or seven days from memory and since this was five years ago I'm a little sketchy on the details of the first week, although the first day really stands out because of being the first day and the fact that the airline had lost our luggage. I bought a note pad in which to keep a record of our daily wanderings, but I didn't even think of doing it until the end of the first week. DRAT!! I wish I had thought of it sooner, it would have made this a lot more detailed and chronologically correct. I know we walked a lot and discovered Les Galeries Lafayette and the Opéra area. In fact, it became our habit to walk every night after dinner, except on the couple of nights it was too cold. One thing we learned quickly, was that we had to watch where we were walking, because there were dog souvenirs all over the place. The airline made good on its promise to find our luggage and it was delivered to the hotel the next day.

The evening of May 1st, our 10th anniversary, we had dinner at a really nice restaurant - La Fermette Marbeuf 1900, which was located just off the Champs-Elysées near the Arc de Triomphe.. Robb had made the reservation by telephone several weeks before we left. While dining, we met a nice young couple from Brighton who had popped down for dinner. I don't think they were married. They smoked a lot (as did just about everybody in Paris, in restaurants, in stores, in the métro, everywhere), which got Robb into the spirit also. They told us that they only smoked when they came to Paris.

After dinner, we thought we would walk down the Champs-Elysées, and back to the hotel, but it was quite cool and windy, making the chill factor less than pleasing. We came upon a métro station and decided that was the way to go. We discovered that we had to change trains at the Bastille station, but while we were waiting, they played the "last train" announcement. Since that was the first time we had heard it, and since our French wasn't really up to par, we didn't understand what was going on. Another passenger told us what it meant. And what it meant to us, was that we would now have to walk back to the hotel regardless of the weather. After walking for several blocks, we came up with the idea to call a taxi, so we stopped at a bar to use the phone. Unfortunately, neither we nor the bartender could get it to work, so we were off again on foot. 

As luck would have it, we were passing a side street when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a taxi letting off his customers. We flagged him down and rode back to the area of the hotel, since he claimed he didn't know where it was. But we got within a couple of blocks, without making him drive several blocks out of his way, because most of the streets are one-way.

Sometime during the beginning of this week, we had discovered Gare de l'Est, a train station several blocks north of the hotel, and we went there many times to get the métro to other areas because it was a major métro hub, with trains to most areas of the city.. We went there one day and upon entering, found a huge mound of dirt and a lot of shrubbery. The next day, it had all been transformed into a really neat model railroad, complete with a little village. The railroad stations in Paris are a whirl of activity. There are métro stations and bus stops, in addition to the trains. And you can get all kinds of stuff there, like food and magazines and newspapers and flowers and you can exchange money and get concert tickets. One of the best restaurants in Paris, Le Train Bleu, is located in Gare de Lyon, a train station on the eastern side of the city. There are also places that sell various clothing items and accessories. It was also during this week when we found that Claude had a guy he would call to fill in for him when he needed to be somewhere else. The guy's name is Serge Dupuy-Malbray. One day he admired my watch, and after we got back home, I sent it to him. He wrote a letter thanking me and informing me that it had arrived coincidentally on his birthday. I was very pleased about that.

6 May - We arose late and it was after noon before we headed out. We walked to Boulevard Strasbourg and went north to Gare de l'Est. We stopped at a local pharmacie to get throat lozenges for Robb, who had picked up a minor cold. At the train station, I bought the notebook I used to chronicle our trip. I looked for a pocket dictionary, but the only thing they had was too big. Robb stopped at the information window and inquired about the cost of a train to Frankfurt. $100 each, each way. After leaving Gare de l'Est, we stopped at a small camera store and I bought three rolls of Kodak 24-400. Then it was off to Sacré Coeur on foot. As we passed Gare du Nord, we saw a souvenir stand and decided to get a few trinkets for the folks back home. Onward to Sacré Coeur. Of course, Robb spotted a men's store and had to stop. He bought another pair of jeans. They were too long and he asked to have them altered. The guy told us they would be ready to pick up by 6:30. We hadn't eaten anything since breakfast and Robb was hungry, so we stopped for sandwiches and wine at a little bistro on rue Custine. While eating, we talked again about the friendliness and helpfulness of the French people. The really great thing about French restaurants is that they don't expect you to eat as fast as possible and get out - they expect you to linger and enjoy!

On the long climb to Sacré Coeur, we stopped to watch a group of old men playing boules (the French version of Italian bocci). I shot a couple of pictures, but I shot through some trees. I hope they turn out. It seemed as though we had been climbing steps forever and we still had a long climb to go. We finally made it, even though we came out behind it somehow. Still, we've got a bunch of pictures of Sacré Coeur that few others will have. Sacré Coeur was well worth the climb. We toured the interior, then we came out and walked down the steps in front, where we came upon a trio of South American musicians. They were very good and we spent a bit of time listening. It was now 4:20PM. Robb got that sudden urge and decided to try one of the public pay toilets (2ff). He emerged a few minutes later and swore he would never do that again.

We walked back to the store to pick up his jeans. He tried them on and they fit nicely, so he kept them on. Then we caught the métro to the Opéra station. We went to the FNAC Media Store and he bought a CD by Francis Cabrel (Hors Saison). It's very good. Kind of folkish sounding with a bit of rock thrown in. A really good idea the French employ in their music stores, is a machine that will play parts of each track after you pass the CD under a scanner. We had never seen that before. We went next door to La Taverne, and made a reservation to have dinner there later. We walked to Ben and Jerry's. I had ice cream and Robb had a cup of tea. While we were there, I noticed the phone booth just outside, and remembered how one day while we were in Bistro Ma Bicoque having breakfast, a guy drove up in a little white van and proceeded to wash down the phone booth outside. We both remarked how peculiar it was to see something like that.

La Taverne is a beautiful restaurant, with several levels. We were on the ground-floor level. We had fish again for the fourth time in seven days. There was a pianist at La Taverne, and as the night grew older, the music became jazzier. We left La Taverne around 11:30. On the walk home, we saw an ad for a Vivaldi/Mozart concert at Ste. Chapelle at 7:15PM for 100ff to 150ff. We continued our slow walk back to the Hôtel Louxor, marvelling at how many people were sitting at cafés or just walking about.

7 May - I got up and wrote out a couple of post cards. We had breakfast at the hotel, then it was off to the bank for Robb and the Post Office (La Poste) for me. We caught the métro to St. Germain de Prés, where we toured the interior of the church. Saw the 39 bus to Gare de l'Est. We walked to the Musée D'Orsay, which was a lot further in reality than it appeared on the "plan de ville" (map). It is much better than the Louvre. It is smaller and actually, prettier. Robb needed tissues for his cold, the guy at the info desk told us to go upstairs to the left. We mistakenly went the wrong way, and he came running after us to send us in the correct direction. Are these people nice or what? Can you even imagine that scene taking place in New York, or anywhere in the US for that matter? At 4:00PM, we stopped for tea and café crème. The restaurant in the Musée D'Orsay is absolutely beautiful. It's like you might imagine a room in the palace at Versailles. Back to the art! After looking for quite awhile, we finally found our way to the Impressionists section, where we found some Monet, Renoir, Gauguin and one (count it - one) Van Gogh! We had just enough time left in which to see photos by Lewis Carroll, before they closed the place and forced us out into the rain. That was not good for Robb, and probably not good for me because I was starting to feel like I might have been catching something.

We took the RER (for the very first time - it uses the same ticket as the métro, which is also good for the bus) to St. Michel, where we got the now familiar métro. The RER was a bit confusing and we had to ask directions. By the time we got back to our stop near the hotel, it had stopped raining. We stopped at a local Super Marché and bought some soap powder and cookies. Super Marché means super market in French, but it was definitely not a super market by American standards, it was more like a little mom and pop store. But they had all the necessities. We had dinner at Bistro Au P'tit Bouchon. It was our second time and again, it was really good. Of course, I overdid it and had to make a run to the bathroom at 1:00Am to bring it back up.

8 May - Up at 9:00 for breakfast at the hotel, then to buy tissues for Robb at the Super Marché. We caught the métro to St. Michel to get the RER to Versailles. The RER was a double-decker and we sat on the top level, which gave us an excellent view of the French countryside and all the beautiful little villages we passed. The Chateau de Versailles was.....okay. The interior looks a lot better in the pictures than in person. The Hall of Mirrors was kind of cool, though. But I'd have to say the best part was the train ride. The town of Versailles is rather nice. We stopped at the Brasserie Hôtel de Ville for coffee. We did discover, however, that the Carte de Musée was a bit of a ripoff. It actually costs less to pay your way into each place, unless you're doing one of those whirlwind tours in which you pop in and out of three or four places every day. But then, you're not going to see very much, so it's still not such a good deal. On the return trip, we somehow got the wrong train and ended up in Montparnasse. But we came out and spotted a small branch of Les Galeries Lafayette. Robb bought a bottle of Xeryus and we both bought some socks. We managed to find the métro and made our way back to the Louxor, where we had some tea with cookies.

We went out at 9:30 to La Botte d'Italie for dinner. I had pizza. Robb had veal marsala. We split a bottle of Remole Chianti (by Marchesi de Frescobaldi). Robb ordered the wine, but the waiter waited for me to taste it. The pizza was great. Not at all what you would get at Pizza Hut or Dominoes. On the way back to the hotel, we noticed that for the very first time since we got here, the Théâtre de la Renaissance was all lit up and alive with people attending a performance.

9 May - Up at 9:00, breakfast and then it was off to do laundry. The laundromat is on the next street over. It's a small place with only four or five washers and as many dryers, but it's relatively expensive - 22ff to wash and 5ff for ten minutes of drying time. So that's about three dollars to wash and four dollars to dry. While the clothes were washing, we walked down the block and found a really neat market where they were selling fruits, veggies, fish, meats, cheese and wine. Everything was so fresh and looked so good, but we didn't buy anything because we had no place to store it and no place to cook it. When we went back to the laundromat, we discovered that we had made a big mistake. We had washed our new French jeans with everything else and everything came out.....grey!

For dinner, we tried a new place.....Chez Adi. It was the best so far (except for La Fermette Marbeuf) and we met a really super nice waitress named Fatima. Fatima was extraordinarily beautiful. In fact, she looked like Elizabeth Taylor when she was young and gorgeous. She and Robb had quite a long conversation. Poor me, my French is abominable. I can say a few things. but I don't understand a word. Walking afterwards, we found the Hôtel Bellevue at 39 rue de Turbigo. It's really nice and really inexpensive also. A double is only 340ff. Pretty well located, too. Just to the west of rue St. Martin near Centre Georges Pompidou, les Forum des Halles, the Musée Picasso, Notre Dame, etc. We continued walking to the les Forum des Halles area. What a fantastic area. So much beauty! But that could be said of almost anyplace you happen to be in this beautiful city!

10 May - Breakfast at 9:30. Off to the bank so Robb can replenish his supply of francs. Then we walked to the Musée Picasso. We got a bit lost, but finally found it. Robb loved it, but I'm not all that crazy about Picasso. Since we were so close, we decided to go to Notre Dame. On the way, we came upon a small department store (Tatti, Totti, something like that). There wasn't much of interest inside. It was kind of like a really small, bad K-Mart. We continued on to Notre Dame. Whichever guidebook said that St. Chapelle was better.....LIED! Not only is Notre Dame better, it is also FREE! There are a lot of souvenir stands/stores near Notre Dame and we stopped at several. We bought a bunch of post cards and I got a nice Limoges plate for Evelyn (a woman with whom I work). We stopped at a McDonalds for hot chocolate. just seemed like the thing to do at the time. Then we were off to Les Forum des Halles, with a stop at a T-shirt stand. We each bought three for 100ff. Les Forum des Halles is many stores on several levels.

We had dinner again at the Hippopotamus, and again it was good. It was too cold to walk so we just went back to the hotel.

11 May - Breakfast at 10:00. Decided to go the Musée Marmottan. There is supposed to be a big Monet collection. The musée is located at 2 rue Louis-Boilly. We could take the 39 bus or RER C to Boulain Villiers. As it turned out, we decided to go by bus and it's the 32 not the 39. The bus driver claimed that he didn't know of the museum. As we rode down rue de Paradis, we saw lots and lots of china and crystal shops. The driver made a special stop for us and showed us where the museum was located (after claiming he didn't know - funny guy). The Musée Marmottan had the largest Monet collection so far. We also discovered Berthe Morisot, who was married to Edouard Manet. She was quite as good as the guys and equally prolific. After we left the museum, we walked for several blocks trying to find the bus stop. We finally found a stop and got on, but it only went a few blocks and the driver told us we must get off. Everyone must get off. If you want to get back on, you have to pay again. But we pretended we didn't understand and he let us stay on. Then in a few blocks, we discovered that there is a bus stop right across the street from the museum entrance. Geez, did we feel dumb! We took the bus to Gare de l'Est and walked back to the hotel.

During one of our tours of the neighborhood, we had discovered a restaurant named Bistro Ma Tante. We had dinner there at 9:30PM. Boeuf bourgignon. It was great. Dinner was followed by a café crème for me and café noir for Robb. After dinner, we walked down Boulevard Voltaire. Then back to the hotel.

12 May - Breakfast at 10:00AM, then to the bank ATM where I got the last 1,000ff I would need. Robb decided he had to get at least one more T-shirt, so we walked down Boulevard St. Martin. We both bought two shirts because the girl who owns the shop (whom we met on our very first day in Paris during our search for new clothes) is very nice and very friendly and really quite charming. It's a shame we can't remember her name. After, we took the métro to Ile de la Cité to check on the tickets for the concert. We couldn't get any real information, we'll just have to take our chances tonight. Then we walked down Boulevard Saint Germain to Les Deux Magots, where we had coffee. It was nice but nothing really special as we had been lead to believe. Serge had told us about a restaurant on Boulevard Montparnasse that was a really good seafood place, and since it was pretty close to the Latin Quarter, we decided to try to find it. We looked the entire length of the boulevard, but couldn't find it. We went to Les Galeries Lafayette for a quick pit stop and then back to the hotel to rest.

6:30 PM - Off to the concert at Ste. Chapelle. It was wonderful. They played an encore of Summertime. After the concert, we decided to have dinner at Les Deux Palais, just across the street. We both had Cunard a l'Orange. It was very good and the waiter was cute and friendly. His English was quite good. He said it was because he has an English girlfriend. I asked him why they played old American rock 'n' roll at almost every place we had been. He said it was because they loved the sound of it, even though they usually didn't understand the lyrics.

Back at the hotel, I packed everything I would not need for the next two and half days. It was only 10:30, but I was ready for bed. Unfortunately, we turned on the TV and 'Death In Venice' was on, so I watched that and then went to sleep.

13 May - Breakfast at 10:00 as usual, then off to Les Invalides, but the métro was not running this morning, so we decided to walk to Au Printemps ( a big department store just a block or so from Les Galeries Lafayette). We only made it as far as a jewelry store that was having a "Going Out Of Business" sale (I think it's still there), where Robb bought a gold zodiac pendant and a gold chain. While he was looking at jewelry, I browsed around and found a cute little crystal penguin, so I bought that. At Les Galeries Lafayette, Robb bought some trinkets for his co-workers, a scarf for his mother and another T-shirt. Then we continued on to Au Printemps. It was a nice store but we didn't buy anything. There was a Marks and Spencer (an English department store) just down the street, so we went there. Robb got some underwear.

Then we got the métro (which we discovered was running again - evidently it was out of service in the morning because it was election day) to Les Invalides. Les Invalides is a large hospital for French soldiers who have little or no money, as well as the burial place of Napolean. It cost 38ff to get in to see his beautiful, marble resting place, directly under the golden dome. Afterwards, we walked to the Musée Rodin, even though our map showed it in the wrong place. It was closed for the day when we got there, but we managed to see the Thinker. When the ticket girl told us the place was closed, I whined about wanting to see it. She said, "Turn around." I did, and there it was, right behind us, in the garden to the right of the entrance. We métroed (well, it's a word now) back to our hotel area and walked down to Chez Adi and took a picture. Back to the hotel to rest.

Left for dinner at Chez Adi at 9:45. As usual, the dinner was good and Fatima was charming and friendly. She told us she didn't want to see us leave because she would cry.....but she didn't. We have since discovered that the food isn't all that good at Chez Adi and it just seemed to be because of Fatima, who no longer works there. It was again too cold to walk, so it was back to the hotel and bed.

14 May - 8:00AM. Well, here it is.....our last full day in Paris. We walked down Boulevard St. Martin. I found a place that had some nice souvenirs and bought a Limoges plate for my sister. We met the charming T-shirt girl, and talked for quite a while. Then, since it was just across the street, we went back to FNAC Media Store because Robb thought he wanted to buy a CD by Helmut Lotti. He didn't. We walked back to the hotel to leave my purchases in the room, and we once again ran into the T-shirt girl (geez, I really wish we had gotten her name). We had another lengthy conversation. She told us she doesn't work at the T-shirt stand (which she and her husband own) during January, February or March. They go down to their house in Provence. Robb and I were thinking what a great way to make a living in Paris. It's obviously lucrative if she can own an apartment in Paris and a house in Provence, and they only work nine months of the year.

Back at the hotel, we found that Claude was under the impression that we were leaving today. Of course, after the first day screw up, we weren't really surprised. But we got it all sorted out to everyone's satisfaction, and left to walk east of the Place de la République. On one of the corners at Place de la République, we came across another La Taverne. Robb had been looking for a restaurant that served Coquille St. Jacques. When asked, the waiter at this place told us that they did indeed have that dish, so we made a 9:30 reservation. We came across a nice clothing store, just around the corner and down the street, and Robb bought a shirt for his father. We continued walking for a couple of hours, coming across all sorts of beautiful buildings, churches and little park-like areas in which there were always a few people sitting on the benches. It really is quite a nice neighborhood.

After a brief rest at the hotel, we went to La Taverne. We had made the reservation for the upper level, but we ended up on the first floor. We tried several appetlizers, none of which we liked and finally, the waiter grew cranky and passed us off to another - Florian ("la petite fleur", as he liked to call himself). He was really patient, tolerant and gay as a goose. He talked us into ordering lobster tails and even cracked them open for us. They were very good. Then it was time for our main dish, but when we tried to order Coquille St. Jacques, Florian told us they don't serve that particular dish, but they had one called Coquille St. Jacques a la Provençale. We were a bit disappointed, but the dish we got was pretty good and we would order it again.....if we ever return to this restaurant. During the time we were there, a family of four (mom, dad, boy and girl) were seated at a table to our right. They ordered the largest seafood entrée I have ever seen. I thought that probably, they didn't realize how large it would be, but they made a valiant effort to eat the whole thing, leaving just a bit that they couldn't finish. Robb paid the check and I gave Florian an extra tip of 50ff (extra, because the tip is included in the price of the meal at all French restaurants). We left the restaurant and took another pleasant evening stroll around the area.

15 May - Our plane was scheduled for departure around 11:00AM. Claude called a taxi and we all said goodbye. It was sad knowing that we were leaving and not knowing when, or even if, we would ever return.

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