The Paris Diaries: Part Two
The journey between Amsterdam and Paris was numbing for both brain and bottom, which became even more apparent when the lad two seats back made a stumbled descent down the bus steps, lit a questionable cigarette, and proceeded to take an assortment of selfies amongst a cloud of stifling smoke. Suddenly, my own sad situation, sat in a puddle of my personal effects with my hand stuck in a Pringles tube, was not so pitiful.
Our week in the Dutch capital had been nothing short of unique, but returning to Paris was a little bit like returning home. Endless hours of yellow-rippled fields and roads that fattened from two to five lanes led us to a small and sweet little 3rd floor apartment in Le Pre-Saint-Gervais, just outside le boulevard peripherique. We had been in this area a few weeks earlier, shimmying around a dark crescent-shaped room in the neon light of Purity Ring's electric set-up, but the contrast was stark. Instead of the city's usual bustling, cigarette-strewn streets, our humble abode sat amongst parks and playgrounds, with plenty of foliage and for once, silence.
Lugging enormous suitcases across the city was no mean feat, and to find a narrow triple-story staircase awaiting us at the end of the ordeal was a kick in the guts - but certainly not to no avail. Our Parisian hideaway sat through a little alley, behind a vine-wrapped courtyard, in the uppermost right-hand segment of the tiny building. We had everything we needed - a teeny kitchen with wooden bench-tops and vines hanging down from above the cupboard; a shoebox bathroom with a wooden-framed mirror that doubled as a shelf; a lovely little living room with no television, simply books upon books and a great big window; and a wind-chime adorned ladder leading up to a loft bedroom, filled with afternoon sun courtesy of a skylight peeping out over the orange rooftops.
We had instructions to water the pot plants, which I took great pleasure in doing each evening in the buttery light of the setting sun, peeping between the two apartment buildings in front of us. Often I would just stand at the window cradling a mug of rose and vanilla tea, mesmerised by the fluttering laundry and children chanting in unfamiliar languages beneath me. Six weeks of roaming around foreign cities had taken its toll - we were exhausted, and thinking of the practicalities of our return home. How would all our new books and clothes fit into two generous but comparatively petite suitcases? How should we prioritise our list of things left to do with our dwindling time? What would we take our friends and families as souvenirs of our explorations? Ergo, the tail end of our trip was peppered with vintage stores, chocolatiers, elaborate artworks, blushing spring parks, and lots of tea.
We spent a lot of the week in Le Marais, indulging in falafel pockets dripping with hummus and perusing the shelves of high-ceilinged stores. Some of my favourites had all-wooden interiors, and were brimming with quills and leather-bound notebooks that transported me back to the 20th century (or so I'd like to think). The area around the city hall was particularly good for aimless wandering, as its streets were lined with many a vintage and department store. There were also a number of gorgeous little book vendors dotted along the upper banks of the Seine which were particularly lovely, framed by drifting leaves and golden rays of afternoon light. Thankfully, the haul was a success. For my brother, a hot pink t-shirt from the racks of a vintage store across from Centre Pompidou, with a pure blue image of a windsail printed on the back, and a mug boasting cartoons yelping 'touche pas à mon Nutella' from the art store next door. For mum, an enormous, moss green fabric-covered sketchbook with thick, soft pages that I stumbled across in the very same department store in which my debit card declined (signifying my imminent lack of funds), and dad, who is notoriously difficult to buy for, a tub of 'Superbalme' from Lush and a tourist t-shirt. I also picked up some Parisian chocolates and bottles of French whiskey in the shape of tiny Eiffel Towers for my grandparents.
To escape the hustle and bustle of the inner city, we found solace in Parc des Buttes Chaumont, and returned there day after day simply to sit by the lake and bathe in its shimmery leaf-filtered light. One afternoon, we lay on the bank, me in my overalls reading a copy of Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik, Tayla listening to her music (undoubtedly French), when two French boys approached us to ask about our books. Cheeky. I got quite a fright, having been so absorbed in my book, taking a quick glimpse up to find someone peering over me. They were kind, mistaking us for British tourists and utterly horrified to discover that we were lounging around in the park with mere days left in the city, without having even visited the main museums or galleries. We said farewell, spent a few more moments watching passing Parisians and admiring their canine companions, then tucked our blankets and books into our tote bags and trotted off to find dinner.
We reserved our obligatory visit to Le Louvre in its sprawling, grandiose beauty for the very last day. I could barely contain my eagerness as we sat knee-to-knee on one of the many rattling silver trains hurtling through the underground, catching glimpses of passengers in passing trains so blurred they looked like smudges of paint on a canvas. We shuffled through the underground entrance, and after a slow 30 minute wait we were in the cavernous foyer of the famous museum. To my astonishment, French army personnel strutted around the busy room cradling enormous guns, reminiscent of those we saw outside Sacre-Coeur just weeks earlier. The tension after the Charlie Hebdo attack earlier in the year was evident wherever we turned, not only in the form of increased military presence, but also small yet heartfelt street art peppered both around Paris and the wider French region. I won't delve into this issue anymore than to say that the sense of camaraderie and solidarity that these horrific events spawn reassures me that things will be okay eventually.
The museum was positively colossal, and stuffed with so many mind-bafflingly beautiful treasures that, coupled with the insanely intricate building itself, smudged into something so incredible that I cannot even bear to attempt to pick favourites. One minute you may be in a room bulging with ancient Egyptian artefacts and jewels, only to find yourself in the bowels of the building exploring the ancient castle, or in the very same room as the famed Mona Lisa itself, the very next. Of course, its astonishingly large scale meant that to get from one area to another you must weave through crowds of hundreds and climb staircase after staircase, but there is something to admire even when you are sat on an escalator (from which I took the above image).
I remember discussing with Tayla the way in which grouping all the relics together in such a condensed area somewhat detracts from their individual excellence. It becomes impossible to distinguish one from another after a while - the only thing I think that would possibly remedy this would be to visit on more than one occasion, instead of cramming as much as possible in in a single day (as we did). I would also recommend leaving for lunch, because there is absolutely nothing vegan on offer in the food hall aside from crisps and juice, and the occasional salad in a plastic container.
I feel somewhat obliged to say that Paris is fantastic in each and every way, however that would be untrue. Strapped in stained seats and crawling along one of Charles de Gaulle's many runways, Tayla and I both concluded that we would be okay with never returning to the French capital. Looking back on this decision, I am obscenely embarrassed by my stupidity. Naturally, hailing from a town of 700 (or less) in perhaps the newest country in the world, I found it difficult to absorb and process all of Paris' insanely rich culture, art, and background, but to never return would be a disservice to my own curiosity. The city is a little bit loud and obnoxious, albeit utterly brilliant, but overwhelmingly so.
At times I grew disillusioned with its polystyrene littered streets, cafes so perpetually thick with cigarette smoke you could reach out and scoop it up with your own two hands, and impolite people, not least the men who gawked at and catcalled each and every woman who strolled by. However, having had six months to reflect on my experiences, I have found myself missing many things. I yearn for the ability to walk down any chosen street and observe such rich culture and precise architecture; I miss the vibrancy of the communal areas in the city, especially the parks, and being able to simply sit and enjoy being saturated in languages and lives other than my own; most of all, I wish I were able to explore the city in more depth.
Nowadays I will read the ingredients label on a box of crackers, or a case of tea, and come across the French version, which will trigger an instant wave of nostalgia. I will remember spending forever trying to find the flocons d'avoine in the supermarkets, trying to decipher the exhibit descriptions in the museums, wandering along the cobblestoned-streets nibbling on squares of vegan cheese, or simply listening to the crackly voice in the Metro calling out each stop. Paris is a special place, indeed.
We travelled from Amsterdam in The Netherlands, through Belgium and back to Paris in an ID Bus which we booked two months prior. It was relatively inexpensive, and a lot cheaper than the rail alternative.
The Paris Metro is undoubtedly the most efficient method of navigating the city, and it's also a wonderful opportunity to observe Parisians going about their daily lives (baguettes in tow). You can also rent Velib bicycles and catch buses, but we simply stuck to the Metro out of convenience and laziness.
WHERE TO STAY
Our accommodation of choice is undoubtedly AirBnB, with its wonderful assortment of apartments and houses to suit every budget and taste. We spent no more than $70 per night between us on accommodation, barely an investment but utterly invaluable in terms of safety and security.
WHAT TO SEE
Le Louvre is a must, as I'm sure you already know, as is the Arc de Triomphe, Sacre-Coeur, and the Eiffel Tower. Tourist hotspots are popular for a very good reason!
WHAT TO DO
Take a carton of cherry tomatoes and some good bread and spend an afternoon lazing about Parc des Buttes Chaumont, perhaps my favourite spot in the city. Le Marais is also a fantastic district for wandering around, as is Montmartre, with a good drink in hand.
WHAT TO EAT
L'Allume burgers from HANK with lashings of vegan mayonnaise, applesauce in jars with oats and brown sugar on top, and endless mugfuls of Kusmi tea from one of the many stores dotted around the city (buy a mixed box if you're indecisive like yours truly).