Monday, November 14, 2011

Il Y A Tout Ce Que Vous Voulez, Aux Champs Elysées...BAH DAH BAH DAH DUMM!!!

Bonjour à tous from (well, now back from) Paris!  I've FINALLY made it here (for more than just a two-hour wait in the train station at the airport), but so much has happened, and this week has been filled with tests, that I can't possibly talk about it all!  So...the short, short version of Paris.

Before I talk about Paris, I would like to talk about something that occurred just before leaving.  On Wednesday, just after classes, I found out that my maternal grandmother, Eleanor (Warren) Coombs, passed away.  She had been suffering for a long time from being unable to breathe independently, and had been dependent on an oxygen tank for a few years now.  A couple of weeks ago, she caught pneumonia, and was not able to recover.  This is a sombre note which takes me to Paris, but I know that she would have wanted me to go to Paris with a positive attitude, a smile, and a thought of her as I continue to experience my journey as a foreign exchange student.  But with that in mind, Grandma, I am sorry that I was not able to be home to be with you during your last days, and I will miss you very much.  I love you.

Now, in true "Grandma Coombs" fashion, who loved word searches, hidden chocolate bars in her nightstand, bowling, golf, and bingo so much, on to the fun!

So you know what that means when I talk about's time for a list! 

Wednesday, Day -1 (the night before leaving for Paris): The "Other" Type of Dinner My Host Family Serves

After I finished with my classes, my host family made my boyfriend and me an EPIC dinner, complete with
1. An aperitif of sweet wine and a sardine spread (which was awesome, don't knock it 'til you try it!) served on crackers from a little pot of the stuff that I bought for my host parents from St. Malo.
2. A first course of potage (a cream-based soup) made of Roquefort cheese, which you can't buy in the States because it's made from unpasteurized milk
3. A main course of roasted duck, potatoes, and veggies. Which. Was. Amazing.
4. A cheese course, including the Roquefort cheese, which you have to use a different knife to cut, since the taste is a very strong blue-cheese flavor
5. An amazing apple tart made by my host father with apples from his brother-in-law's apple orchard.
6. A follow-up glass of sparkling wine aperitif with a macaron from a gift box filled with them I bought for my host mother.  Her birthday is tomorrow, and I asked my host father what he would suggest, who directed us to a chocolatier close by.  These macarons don't have any fake coloring to them, just a nice, puffy crust with a gooey paste inside.  It was the best macaron I'd had in France.

All of this was served with some of the wine that was bought during our recent excursion to Saumur, and my host father even gave a bottle of wine to the beau-friend to take back as a souvenir for us to drink when I come back to the States.

I love my host family.

Thursday, Day 1: Royale with Cheese

1.  Dropped off at the train station by my host father, allowing the beau-friend and me some extra time to get ready for our early day.  Again, I love my host family.
2.  TGV-ing with the Beaners (Gene, my boyfriend).
3.  Arriving at Charles de Gaulle Airport, which I arranged on purpose, since my ticket is round-trip, but Gene's is one-way, since he'll be flying back to the States on Sunday.
4.  Taking the RER (the "rural"-type train, which takes you into town from the suburban areas, and only stops at certain places) from CDG to Paris, where we changed trains toget to our hotel, situated close to the Arc de Triomphe.  The Champs-Elysées runs into the Arc de Triomphe, so I'll be seeing both for the first time.
5.  Holy heavens-to-Betsy:
This thing is HUGE!  Also, it being the day before Armistice Day (Veteran's Day in the U.S.), there are tons of tanks, big-screen TV projectors, and police about in preparation for a parade down the C-E the next morning.
2.  Check into the hotel after standing wide-mouthed at the magnificence of the Arc de Triomphe for a while as Gene stares at me.  I am overwhelmed by the sheer size and amount of artistry put into something that was created in remembrance of several battles France was involved in, including the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and finally, for World War I.  The tomb of the Unknown Soldier from WWI is here, and you can go through a tunnel that runs under the square to visit the Arc and even climb up it.  We didn't do that on this trip, but I hope to go back soon for a second chance to do so.  Seeing things like this is always profound for me; although I believe in peace, I understand that it is not always possible.  When those times come to pass, and there must be a battle to save others from enslavement, oppression, and the like, it warms my heart to see things like this, where those who live on can honor those who were fallen.  In some ways, if it wasn't for those fallen soldiers, in France, the U.S., as well as other countries, it would not be possible for me, being a working-class, non-traditional woman, to be able to travel alone to a foreign country.  It may not even have been possible for me to be able to go to school.  I have respect and appreciation for the lives that may have been lost in order to give me, and others, the opportunities that I have now.

3.  On a sillier note, after checking into our "quaint", but very nice hotel, Gene and I decided to be as American as possible and order a Royale with Cheese from Mickey D's, or, as the French call it, MacDo, à la "Pulp Fiction".  But it wouldn't be complete without the tiny can of beer that you can totally order from there, just like John Travolta said:
They serve their french fries with a mayonnaise sauce, not ketchup, by the way.
We are so American, right, John?
It's a Royale with cheese because of the Metric System, you know

3.  Nonchalantly, Gene looks at me and asks, "you wanna go to the Eiffel Tower today"?
This kind of question provokes a different kind of response from me.  Unlike many others, who freak out at the chance to go to le Tour Eiffel, I always thought it was very overrated, and was just a big ol' radio tower that no one uses anymore.

I was so wrong.

Walking down a few backstreets to save the C-E for later, we turned a couple of corners, and peeking through the fall-hued leaves of a few trees sprinkled along a small patch of green park space, I gazed at the image of what I that was something simply *meh*, and stood, amazed, at the magnitude that this symbol of Paris bestowed on the landscape...

...and I started to cry.

It was there, in that tiny park, among those tiny yellow-and-red-leaved trees, that it really donned on me that I was here, in Paris, and that I made it here to France.  I actually did it.  Really and truly.  And as a symbol of my own personal journey, this tower, a remnant of ingenuity for the 1889 World's Fair, was looking down on me, almost as if it was giving me permission to be in France, gracing me with its presence.  It was breathtaking.

Like a little kid, I skipped along the roadside, looking for a good place for pictures.  After a couple of photo-ops, we made our way to the huge line to get onto the elevator, since we found out that *you cannot walk halfway up via stairs, then take the elevator to the top*.  You can take the stairs halfway up, or you can take the elevator all the way up, but those are your only choices.  You can thank me for saving you up to two hours of waiting in the wrong line later :)

By the time we made it to the front of the line to go up the Tower, it was already dark.  However, this was a new experience for Gene, and for me, it was my first, but I think if I were to have the choice, I would have chosen to go up at night anyway.  The view is spectacular, and you get to see the Tower sparkle every hour:


You can't tell, but we're totally at the top of the Eiffel Tower!
4.  After spending a long, long time at the top of the tower (which ended up working in our favor because it was too foggy to see anything the next day), we headed back to the hotel.  Passing in front of the Eiffel Tower, there was an amazing contemporary art exhibit setup, featuring photographers from all over the world.  I wasn't able to find the name of the actual exhibition, but some of the best photographers featured in Paris can be found here: I've copied the direct web address to feature one of the photographers, Hassan Hajjaj:                             
by walking along the C-E, chock-full of stores ranging from souvenir shops to Cartier.  There were a lot of stores already decked out for the holidays, which was nice for me to see, since my dad goes all out with the Christmas decorations.  I particularly liked the Louis Vuitton window, which looked like it was decorated with Christmas ornaments from far away, but which were actually hot-air balloons up close:
5.  We finished our evening with yet another very American meal: Chinese food!

Day 2: To the Louvre!

After getting some Starbucks coffee for breakfast (oh, how I love French coffee, but miss you at the same time, oh Starbucks mermaid!), we watched the end of the Armistice Day parade, and walked down the C-E to the Place de la Concorde.  This is where there are two gorgeous fountains, and in true Archaeological-nerd style, I was particularly excited to visit the *real* Egyptian obelisk in the middle of the square.  The base, in French, explains how it was transported, by boat, to France from Egypt.  Although I know that Zahi Hawass, the former Egyptian Minister of the State for Antiquities Affaires, likes the idea of bringing all Egyptian artifacts back to Egypt in order to boost the tourist industry, I have to admit that following the recent uprising of revolutionaries in Egypt for democracy, the pillaging and destruction made by Egyptian troublemakers during the ruckus to the Egyptian museums and pyramids breaks my heart.  I'm glad that this obelisk is here in France, where it is now protected, for even though Hawass' dream makes sense, Egypt is not stable enough to protect its ancient artifacts--it has bigger problems to deal with right now.

Trust me, folks. I know what I'm doing.  I'm an archaeologist.

Speaking of pyramids, here's a picture of me in front of the one at the Louvre:
So, my French language teacher told us that the Louvre has so many objects in it, that if you spent 30 seconds looking at each one, it would take you over two months to look at everything.  With that in mind, if you have a student card, and you're under 25 (not the case for me, hélas), you can get in for *free*.  Zip. Zilch. Nada. Gratuit.
Some of the highlights of my (hopefully first of many) visit(s) to the Louvre which I found interesting:

The Venus de Milo

Winged Victory of Samothrace (statue of Nike)

Mona Lisa-but don't be this dude who's trying to take a picture with his HUGE iPad, ruining a nice shot for everyone else, please :)  Keep in mind that this painting is tiny!

Sarcophagus of the Spouses (Etruscan)
They look so happy together :)

Code of Hammurabi (example of cuneiform, the first form of writing)

"It is imperative that you use the French Future Simple if you're giving commands!"  My grammar teacher would be so proud of me for saying that!
And just a start of some others:
The Clubfoot (1642, painting, Naples)
Paintings by Peter Paul Reubens
Paintings by Holbein the Younger and Holbein the Elder (check out "The Ambassadors" when you get a chance, even though it's not in the Louvre, it's in the National Gallery in London)
Paintings by Arcimboldo (trust me, you'll want to look this guy up!)
Paintings by Caravaggio
Paintings by Rembrandt, including his older works
Paintings by Albrecht Dürer
The Mesopotamian exhibit
The Ancient Egyptian exhibit
18th Century Hellenistic sculpture exhibit

As I said before, this is just a starter list.  Two other things to keep in mind while you're wandering the halls is to *LOOK UP*--the ceilings are painted, too!--and to *LOOK DOWN*.  I recently had a discussion in French with a friend of mine here where we talked about the fact that the marble *stone* stairs are curved from so many people walking on them.  Just think!

Remember folks, the Louvre pretty much takes all day, so plan accordingly!

Day 3: The Red-Light (and Red Windmill) District

This day we visited Montmartre, going first to the Sacre Coeur, which was built, on purpose, in the shadiest part of Paris as an attempt to make up for the Church's indulgences (different than paying the church for Indulgences, which is the reason why Martin Luther broke off from the Catholic church), during the turn of the 20th century.  A word of caution: do *NOT*, I repeat, *NEVER EVER EVER* let those guys come up to you to try and knot a bracelet together by using your finger, *NOR* let someone get you to sign a petition.  The petitions, at the bottom, state that you agree to give the petition people money, and it also gets you to stop dead in your tracks for the same reason that the bracelet-making people come up to you: FOR PICKPOCKETING.  Paris is beautiful, bien sûr, but please, please be wary.  You're a tourist, people can tell you're a tourist (i.e. camera is out, map is out, lost look on your face trying to find directions, you're carrying a bag from a souvenir shop, etc., etc.), so you need to do everything in your power to keep your stuff safe.  I know it's very "Eurotrip" of me, but I wear a money belt with a slightly oversized shirt.  I've had occasions where I've stopped somewhere to get something out of my bookbag, just to find that all of my zippers have been partially opened.  These people are professionals, folks.  Please be wary, be cautious, and help each other.

That being said, aside from those folks, Montmartre was beautiful:
1. The Sacre Coeur was beautiful
2. The view of Paris from the top was beautiful (the church is the highest point in Paris)
3. The French accordion player at the top of the hill was beautiful (I have a personal weakness for accordion music, but don't tell anyone-that would really make me sound nerdy!)
4. The Moulin Rouge was beautiful
5. The Art Nouveau-style Metropolitain signs were beautiful
6. Even the adult stores were beautiful, in their own funny way.

Gene also bought me a music box, which plays the song for the C-E.  At first I was really annoyed by the song, that I heard everywhere (even from Gene) around the time we arrived here, but having a music box that plays that song makes it a nice memory now.  I got my love of music boxes from my paternal Grandmother, with whom I lived for three years, until she passed away from cancer a few years ago.  She always wanted me to go back to school, and she passed just after I got out of the hospital from complications due to a malfunctioning gallbladder (which I think had to do with my very unhealthy diet at the time).  Seeing myself now, healthy and not only back in school but studying abroad, warms my heart to think of her.  

I am also thinking of my maternal grandmother now, and it puts my heart at ease to think that she is no longer suffering from the inability to breathe.  Standing in Paris, taking in the Parisian air with my lungs working at full capacity, I am glad to have my health, glad to have my friends, and glad to have my family.  For those of you who have been so supportive of me, and to you both, Grandma Coombs and Grandma Thomas, I am grateful for you all, and hold you all dear in my heart.
Alright, where's Ewan McGregor?!?!
7. But another reason we stopped in Montmartre was to visit the "Café des 2 Moulins", the restaurant that Amélie worked in, in the movie of the same (U.S.) name.  It is, of course, different in real life than in the movie, mainly because the movie made the restaurant so popular and tourist-y, so instead of showing what it really looks like, I want to maintain the glamour of the restaurant in the film, so I'll just show this picture instead:

 8.  After leaving Montmartre, we took the métro back by the Eiffel Tower, where we went on a guided boat tour along the Seine.  

You have to do this.  I'm just saying.

During that time, we went up and down the Seine, passing by the Eiffel Tower, along with plenty of other awesome places.  As we passed the Musée d'Orsay, which used to be the main Paris train station (and which was graphically reconstructed to it's train-station heyday in the movie "A Very Long Engagement"), I saw, along with plenty of other cities in France carved into the stone face of the Musée, my town:
Angers, c'est moi!
We finished off the day with a trip to a Japanese restaurant (which was really good), and packed for an early start tomorrow.  Gene has to leave early in the morning, and I'm going with him to the train station, but I will be free to roam the rest of Paris until around 9 o'clock, when I board the train back to Angers.

Day 4-The Last Day
Waking up at the crack of dawn, Gene and I headed to the Métro in order to buy our RER tickets for us to go to the airport.  I wasn't leaving Paris yet, though, so I bought a daily pass card, that gives me access to all Métro stops in Paris, the RER to get to and from suburban areas (including the airport), and all buses.  This was by FAR a good investment if you're thinking about going to Paris and wanting to see lots of things, which you will have to take the Métro to get to, anyway.  I found a really good site that explains the differences between tickets and stuff for Paris here:

Our trip to the airport ended up really being a journey, since the direct RER line to CDG Airport was shut down for repairs.  An additional 45 minutes later, Gene and I said our tearful goodbyes, and I was back on a shuttle ("navette" in French) to get back to the RER line to go back into town.  Although we are used to not seeing each other for weeks on end at times (he lives in TN, a 3.5-hour drive away), it was different this time, being in such a romantic city together, and knowing that he came all the way to France to see me.  Even though I was still excited to be in Paris and to be able to see different things, I was also very saddened to see him go.

I made my way to the Latin Quarter after checking out of the hotel, and walked around Notre Dame, the Place St. Michel, and also passed by the Sorbonne and crossed the Pont Neuf.  It was a beautiful day, and I managed to find a seat on the Pont Neuf to do a bit of homework (yep, I'm that big of a nerd, bringing homework to Paris).  After visiting the MacDo closeby for a bathroom break (*hint* they're free to use there, you don't need to buy something to use it like you do at the other MacDo's) and walking through a Parisian artists' studio building, I made my way back to the métro.  

This time, since I was already seasoned with the huge detour to follow in order to get to the airport, I was able to help several people, sometimes in English, sometimes in French, to explain to them what was going on, and where to go to get to the Airport Shuttle.  After a long conversation in French with a nice older man, a very cramped RER ride to the shuttles, lots of questions to me in French and English, and seeing a video that a New Yorker named Daniel took when he was pulled up on stage at the 30 Seconds to Mars concert at the Zenith the night before, I ended up being at the airport with two hours to spare.  

This actually ended up being perfect, because I was able to ask for a good place to eat in the Terminals.  My best advice to you, if you're going to Paris via CDG Airport, is to get there with plenty of time to spare.  This is because of Terminal 2D.  Terminal 2D has plenty of restaurants to choose from, not just overpriced and overbaked patisserie stands, and if you go downstairs, it is nice and quiet and no one else is there.  The bathrooms are also very clean downstairs, there's a grocery store (along with MacDo, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks among the restaurants upstairs), as well as a big fiberglass cow and a tiny fiberglass frog perched atop of a platform that tells a story about the two.  

After eating a sandwich and doing homework with the vache by my side, I made it to the train station, sat down, and opened my "Français des Affaires" book just to look over and see the exact same book in the lap of the guy beside me.  It was another student from my class, and we had a nice conversation before boarding the train and coming back to Angers just before midnight.  Crawling into bed, I felt satisfied with my first trip to Paris, and hope to go back again before I leave back to the U.S. in January.  

But for now, onto a week filled with tests!

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