Sunday, December 27, 2009

Paris for Christmas

Being the hopeless romantics that we are, Logan and I decided to go to Paris for Christmas. Also because this may well be the only time in our lives that it costs 10,30€ to get there, rather than a few hundred. So I made reservations at the best restaurant in the world and at the hotel Logan and I stayed in last spring, and we hopped on the train. Another assistant, Darcy, was also going to Paris (to meet her family for Christmas), so we got to chat with her on the train. I love running into people I know randomly in Rouen; it makes me feel very popular.

Once we arrived in Paris, I realized that I'd forgotten to look up the address of the hotel. No matter, I boldly declared, I remember the street it's on, we just have to walk up it until we find it. Twenty minutes later, after walking up "Rue du Faubourg St-Denis" and down "Rue du Faubourg St-Martin" ("But I'm sure it's on a Rue du Faubourg St-Something!") and having two French people ask if we were lost and needed help, I admitted defeat and called a friend to ask him to look it up online. "Oh, Rue du Faubourg Montmartre! And it's in the 9th arrondissement, not the 10th... Okay, thanks so much!" We were relatively close, though, so we walked it, and 10 minutes (and infinite sense of direction jokes from Logan) later we were checking in. It's a lovely hotel, reasonably-priced (especially if you choose a room with a shared bathroom and shower - they have sinks in every room), and always scrupulously clean. And the neighborhood is friendly enough that you don't need to worry about getting mugged on your way back home. It's quirky, too - the rooms are all very oddly-shaped

and they picked turquoise and burgundy-red for the walls, which doesn't sound like it works but it does. We dropped off our luggage and had enough time to shower and dress all fancy-like (because it's us, and we're in Paris) before heading out to Le jardin d'en face, my favorite restaurant in the whole wide world. It's in Montmartre and I learned about it when I studied abroad two years ago, and I've been singing its praises ever since. It's tiny - only 26 seats - and the décor is nothing special, the tables are crammed together, the napkins are plaid, the silverware is not fancy... but everybody there is cheerful and friendly, the food is absolutely fantastic, and you can get three generously-portioned courses for under 25€, which is rare in Paris. So I enjoyed my œuf cocotte au foie gras (soft-boiled egg in a mini casserole dish with cream and foie gras, eaten with toast fingers) and my tartiflette au magret fumé (potatoes, onions and cheese baked in a casserole with thin slices of smoked duck and walnuts on top) and my wild strawberry and blueberry sorbet and then had to roll back down the hill. Logan had pumpkin-chestnut soup with crème fraîche and cheese and garlic croutons (I must find a recipe), filet mignon de porc with a gooseberry-porto sauce and mashed potatoes, and apple sorbet "drizzled" with Calvados (apple brandy) that turned out to be more "soaked" or perhaps "drenched" in Calvados - I nearly passed out just smelling it. But it was all so good - I have never once eaten anything less than spectacular there, and at this point I've tried most of their menu. If you are ever in Paris you must go there, no excuses. We got coffee afterwards and sat there talking and people-watching until after 11 (we'd gotten there at 8) and it was such a relaxing way to spend the evening. We went over to Sacré Cœur afterwards to take some pictures, which came out beautifully (I'd like to take some credit for that, but it's hard to take a bad picture of that place):

The next morning, Christmas Eve, we set out for the Louvre, because Logan had never been and we get in free because we're teachers! We meant to stay there for a few hours, then hit up the Musée d'Orsay, but we didn't get to the Louvre until 11:30, and then... well, it's the Louvre, and despite being tired and hungry we stayed there until nearly 4:00. We spent a lot of time in the Mesopotamian art section, because it's cool stuff, and there were statues.

There was also a pillar with Hammurabi's Code on it, with the whole "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" thing:

There was a handy translation of some of the interesting bits, as well, and I was surprised to see that it's not all horribly draconian, unfair punishments - there were some pretty smart ideas. For one, if a wife commits adultery, both she and the man she cheated with are tied together and thrown into the water, which is better than just the woman getting stoned to death. Also, if an adopted child rejects his adoptive parents and goes back to his birth parents, the ungrateful little wretch gets his eye pulled out. See? Harsh, but just, after a fashion.

Then we swung through Napoleon III's apartments, which had these really cool conversation chairs.

See? That way there's no awkward middle person on the couch that you always have to talk around. So smart, those Frenchies. There was also some classy gold/black décor, which was actually a haven of simplicity compared to the rest of it.

Then it was time for the objets d'art section, where there were SO MANY SHINY THINGS I kept getting really distracted. I'm like a magpie, really. First, there was this,

which is actually a feeding bottle from an old charity hospital. It's so gorgeous, and yet at the time was probably just a tool to facilitate feeding an invalid, nothing to be oohed and ahhed over. I like it, though.

Then there were cabinets and cabinets of tiny gorgeous things, only two of which I'll show here:

I was drooling the whole time, though. Little lacquered or enameled or gilded boxes with inlaid mother-of-pearl or lapis lazuli or emerald, earrings with pearls, brooches with diamonds, necklaces with rubies... I tend to forget how pretty real jewels are until I see them in person, and then I remember all of a sudden. Still, woman cannot live by jewels alone, so we decided to head over to the Musée d'Orsay to take in some Impressionism. The museum is housed in a former train station, so it's very light and airy and they kept the big ol' clock!

I had art history class there when I studied abroad, so it's nice and familiar and I look really smart because I've learned about most of the famous paintings in it. I even remembered why some of them were famous! We had to do a bit of a whirlwind tour because the museum was closing in an hour, but we did manage to see most of the highlights, and Logan got a picture of a lion statue so he was content. Then we got herded out with the rest of the tourists and wandered towards the Champs-Elysées and the Christmas market there. On the way, we got sucker-punched by beauty, which happens all the time in France (okay, maybe not in Le Havre) and had to stop and take pictures again:

That's the Grand Palais, seen from across the Pont Alexandre III, which is made of reinforced concrete (and is the only reason I know how to say "reinforced concrete" in French). Right after that, it started to rain and I got really hungry, so I got a grilled salmon sandwich at the Christmas market on the Champs-Elysées, which was horrendously overpriced (thanks, Paris!) but delicious. Low-blood-sugar crankiness averted, we wandered through the Christmas market a little more, then went back to the hotel to dry off.

At about 10, we headed up to Sacré Cœur to attend the singing service at 11 and the midnight mass after that. We arrived at the church at 10:30 and it was already packed, but we managed to squeeze in at the back. The service was quite lovely, despite not being able to see much, and the program had all the words to everything printed out, so Logan and I learned a lot of French religious words that I'm sure will come in handy someday... We also got to sing Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming (with very different words), Silent Night, Angels We Have Heard on High, O Come All Ye Faithful, and Il est né, le divin enfant, so that made me very very happy. It's not Christmas until I get to sing Christmas carols! There were lots of call and response chanty bits as well, where a nun would sing a line and then everybody would mumble back in some vague semblance of a tune. It did make it more interesting than just reading everything, though. Then it was communion and I practically had to physically restrain Logan from going up to take it ("But they're getting crackers! I want a cracker!") because we're both heathens, at least in the eyes of the Catholic Church. When all the incense-swinging and blessing of the little crackers was over, it was 1:40 AM and we had a métro to catch at 1:49... The last métro, as a matter of fact. So we hightailed it down those oh-so-picturesque steps which are not nearly so picturesque when you're walking down or up them, ran into the station, waited for the elevator (Abbesses is the deepest station in Paris. I've taken the stairs exactly once, and it would take the four horsemen of the apocalypse to get me to do it again) and emerged on the platform a safe three minutes before the last train. The hilarious part is that we weren't catching the last train because of a crazy party; no, we were coming back from church.

The next morning was Christmas! We woke up, lazed around, ate breakfast, and finally got out the door at about noon. Our destination was the skating rink in front of the Hôtel de Ville, because really you can't overdo the "skating in front of Hôtels de Ville" thing in France. We rented our skates, left them our shoes, and clomped onto the rink. This time, there wasn't as much water on top, which was already a plus, and they had a separate area for kids and people who can't skate, so the ice was nearly free of tripping hazards. It was sunny, too! We alternately skated and took pictures (and sometimes did both at once, with hilarious results) and it was a lovely way to start Christmas. Here's proof, since it didn't happen unless my feet were there:

Then we went to the Jewish district for lunch, figuring that things would be open there. Sure enough, there was a huge crowd of tourists who'd thought the same thing, but we still managed to wander around and get some falafel (oh sweet delicious food of the gods, how I've missed you). Then we walked back to the Pont Alexandre III, clearly becoming our favorite bridge, and took more photos, this time of the Eiffel tower because it's purty.

Then we wandered around the Champs-Elysées for a while, going into lots of car stores because they were open, and because my travel buddy is a car fanatic. BUT! In the Toyota store you could make free buttons! Mine got ruined because the guy making them was an idiot, but Logan's lovely coloring job on a Toyota in front of the Paris skyline was made into a gorgeous button, which he couldn't stop taking out and looking at for the rest of the day.

Then we hopped a métro back to our street and got a Nutella-banana crêpe, which magically made all my tiredness melt away... We also found a few bodegas that were still open and bought cider and champagne and snacks. We drank the cider while watching a Charlie Chaplin movie that a French station had decided to air (with French translations of the explanatory frames - hilarity ensued), then put on more layers and headed out to the Eiffel Tower. There was, as expected, a ridiculous line, but we were excited so it didn't matter. When we got up to the top, we bravely ventured outside to take pictures, but couldn't last much longer than 10 minutes because of the wind, which was strong enough on one side to knock you back. We persevered, though, and got some lovely views of a lit-up and breathtaking Paris.

We also blew bubbles at the top, although, lucky lazy people that we are, the wind mostly took care of that for us. Then my camera ran out of batteries, so I just walked around looking at Paris from all directions until it was time to go back down. Paris, je t'aime...

Back at the hotel, we toasted to Paris at Christmas with our cheap champagne, then fell into a deep, well-deserved sleep.

With our one remaining day in Paris, we decided to go to another of my favorite museums, the Musée de Cluny, which is the Middle Ages museum. Not only do I love that place, but they were having a special Astérix exhibition, which is my idea of heaven. On the fences around the museum, they had Astérix parodies of famous art, and inside, in addition to all the awesome Medieval stuff, they had some of the original panels, Goscinny's typewriter, and some background on how Goscinny and Uderzo created the books. AND they had books for sale in the museum shop! I bought Astérix et les Goths, and now I'm hoping fervently that I don't already have that one in French.

We had time for one last crêpe (lemon and sugar for me, cinnamon and sugar for Logan) and then we headed to St Lazare and thence to Rouen. More photos in my Facebook album, if you wish.


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