“I’m not leaving you alone in Paris!”
That’s what Mark said when I suggested staying by myself in Paris while he went to his meeting in Strasbourg. Actually, it was his colleague Richard’s idea. They had a business trip there and were routing through Paris. The trip was supposed to happen last year but was postponed, and I had been visualizing a week in Paris ever since. Visualization, it works.
Mark didn’t leave me there alone, technically. I flew to Paris by myself, connecting through Istanbul, while his group flew Emirates Business Class direct to Paris, then caught another flight to Strasbourg. They would come back through Paris, stay one night, and catch a plane to Dubai. Mark would stay on to spend the weekend with me in the City of Lights. The best of both worlds!
With only about two weeks to think and plan, Mark consulted Richard, who has lived in Paris, and booked me a small single room at the modest Elysee Bassano Hotel near the Arc de Triomphe. I would meet them at the Sofitel on Wednesday, and Mark and I would move to another, less ritzy hotel for our last two nights.
I decided not to commit to any tours this trip, but I purchased a Paris City Passport which included a 5 metro pass, 4 day museum pass, one day on the Red Bus tour and one Bateaux boat ride on the Seine, at a cost of 121 euros. Not only I could easily pick and choose what I wanted to see, but people who have the museum pass can skip to the front of the lines with no waiting to get in. I found this hard to believe; could it really be true? Why would anyone not have a pass?
Instead of sending the City Passport packet to Abu Dhabi, where there are no addresses or home mail delivery, I decided to pick it up in person at the Paris tourism office, about a mile and a half walk from my hotel. I would arrive too early to check in anyway, so it would be something to do, a walking intro to Paris.
And so after dropping my bag at the hotel, I found myself in Paris strolling down the Avenue des Champs Elysees at 11:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning in June, starting at the beginning, the Place Charles de Gaulle traffic circle and the magnificent Arc de Triomphe, which from the very beginning became my anchor.
The stores and the cafes were quiet, although there was a lineup to get into the Luis Vuitton store. I had been warned about pickpockets, and was wondering how long it would be before someone came along and put me on the defensive.
Not long. In the second or third block a shabbily dressed young man in his late twenties came up next to me, bent down, and appeared to scoop a gold ring up off of the ground, showing it to me with a questioning look on his face. I distanced myself and kept walking, shaking my head. Again, he tried to give me the ring. "I don’t want it, it's not mine," I said, moving even further apart. "Fahhh youuu," he said, shaking his head and striding off.
Fine, but this wasn't the pickpocket scheme I had heard of where someone bumps into or spills something on you in a crowd, then "helps" you while accomplices relieve you of your valuables. This guy was alone and we were in an un-crowded place. What was with the gold ring?
This same thing, with the same type of ring, happened again and again over the next few days and I realized that they were gypsies. They "find" an expensive looking but probably brass ring, offer it to you, and ask for some money. It’s a scam they've been working for years. As my well-traveled European-American friend Lina says, "I can't believe anybody falls for it."
My route had me veer left off Champs Elysee before reaching the other end and the Luxor Obelisk, and I found myself walking along the Rue de Faubourg St. Honore, one of the most fashionable streets in the world, where all fashion houses have stores. Richard calls it "the most expensive street in the world." It was Sunday, all the stores were closed, but I could still ogle the windows. What a great find on my first day in Paris! I also walked past the well-guarded Elysee Palace, official residence of the President of the French Republic.
No trip to Europe would be complete without a protest or strike, or even better, both. I heard drums and chanting ahead of me, and a group of people were demonstrating for parental rights for estranged fathers, apparently an issue in several European countries. After a bit of research, I found this link to provide the best synopsis and a bit of legal history on the issue, although it is decidedly written from the men’s point of view.
After losing my way to the tourism office, getting directions from a hotel doorman in French that I didn’t understand, and walking in a big circle, I finally found the tourism office. I picked up my packet and stopped at a café where I learned my first obvious lesson: you can’t buy food from the take away counter and then sit down at a table and eat it. Chucking the pita sandwich I bought that wasn’t worth eating anyway, I ordered a camembert sandwich, which was some hunks of cheese stuffed into a split baguette, and a cappuccino, which tasted heavenly in the damp and chilly air, and chatted with a couple of young American women from Orlando at the next table, who asked for “la cuenta.” Having quickly learned a few useful French terms for the trip, I told them that the French call it “l’addition.”
The Louvre was just a couple of blocks away, so I decided to walk over and look around. It was mid afternoon, and although I had spent all night on the plane I had slept, so I wasn’t that tired. What to do, activate my museum pass by entering the museum at 2:00 p.m., which would effectively waste most of the first day of free admissions? I decided to go for it. This was the first of three separate visits I would make to the Louvre, which I think I will write about in a separate post.
After my low-key foray into the Louvre, I walked back to my hotel through the Tuileries Garden, the Place de Concorde, and back up the Champ de Elysees, dragging myself toward my anchor, the Arc de Triomphe. I made it back to the hotel and checked in at 4:30, collapsing in my cozy room and breaking with our usual policy by opening the 375 ml bottle of white wine in the mini bar.
Later, I went to a nearby bistro and had dinner with a view of the Arc de Triomphe, and then used my museum pass to gain entry to the top of the arch. It was overcast, not great photo weather, but it was wonderful to be up there looking at Paris. I also spent a few moments reflecting on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where the flame was burning.
All in all, it was a very good first day.