Last day with Amélie

The one thing (among many) that they don’t accurately portray in the movies is the crowds. Whenever they show the sunny streets or winding lanes of Paris, they are never populated by masses of tourists with selfies-sticks and backpacks.

We went to Montmartre today after we checked out of our Airbnb. Ah, Montmartre: the Paris neighborhood that is home to the Moulin Rouge (and the red-light district) and Amélie. Since we had only little time and large backpacks, we had to pick and choose what we were going to see. Zoe’s choice was Sacré-Cœur, the basilica at the top of the hill. We took the back steps up to the top and therefore were much surprised by the massive crowds we encountered in the front of the church. Right below us, was the plaza where Amélie gave back Nino his notebook full of torn photographs, but instead of being pleasant and spotted with a few milling couples and families, it was chilly and packed with people. Easy to see why, though. Both the basilica and the view were gorgeous.

We shuffled into the church behind packs of people and walked along the sidelines as a Sunday service commenced. Non-worshiping visitors were taking pictures and talking despite the large signs telling them not to. The small gift shop inside was also packed.

After we were back in the open air, I led us around, searching for the café Amélie “worked” at and using a picture of a map as my guide. Our route took us through the cobbled, winding streets of the movies. This time, they actually were sparsely populated and picturesque. (Every fiction has a root of truth.) We finally found the place through a bustling street. The café was also busy, but we were shown to a table quickly enough. The layout (save the cigarette counter which has been removed for more seating) was basically the same as in the movie. There were more tables and the décor had been updated, but it was still recognizably Amélie’s café. And if that wasn’t clear enough, there was a large signed picture of Améile hanging in the back and basically a shrine to the movie in the toilets.

The food was some of the best I’ve had in France. It might’ve been my love of the movie influencing my taste buds. I don’t know. But, one thing’s for sure, I will always remember that meal. I literally cleaned my plate.

After we left the café, we had more time to walk around before out train back, but Zoe and I both felt tired and didn’t feel like walking around with heavy packs on our backs, so we went early to the station and hung out until our train home.

Walking through Paris

The weather continued to be chilly, overcast, and damp. Fall seemed to have come all at once, and of course it had to happen while we were in Paris. It wasn’t too bad though. The weather eventually warmed up, and we made the most of it by bundling up and wandering about like all the fictional characters in Paris seem to do.

First, that day, we encountered a meat and produce market blocks from our Airbnb. It was packed with Parisians doing their weekend shopping, all queuing in front of and negotiating with the stall keepers over fresh fish or local grapes. We were too intimidated to buy anything.

We eventually made our way to Père-Lachaise Cemetery. Amongst the fall leaves and cobble stone streets, the tall, above-ground graves and mini chapels/shrines seemed to hold a special power. There was a pressure, a presence that compelled me to walk slowly and speak quietly. The place was full of moss covered stones, sitting beside the new, sleek graves. Past and present united in death.

The spell was broken, however, when we encountered clumps of tourists, huddling around Oscar Wilde’s and Jim Morrison’s graves. As with every other tourist spot, they were there in force with their cameras and their tour guides. Zoe and I quickly moved on.

We then made our way to Bastille, strolling down the busy, urban streets and counting the dozens of cafés and patisseries along the way. They’re as frequent as Starbucks or McDonalds are in the states. We eventually got to the monument and it was there that we encountered a local craft fair. It was relatively empty and the artists huddled together around tables off to the sides to eat lunch. There was some amazing artwork there, and both Zoe and I ended up buying something. Better to support the local artist than the souvenir chain.

From there we continued and quickly ran into crowds. Here were the hordes of tourists that we missed before. I hadn’t noticed it when we walked along the river the previous evenings, but, at the time, crowds were relatively few and far in between. But now there they were, in full force, gathering around the vintage books and print stalls along the Seine and laughing and pointing in awe and excitement. There was so much English being spoken that I momentarily forgot what country I was in.

We elbowed our way through the masses to the restaurant we had been heading to called Le Rostand (ironically, we went at the suggestion of a guide book). It was a bustling café near Le Jardin du Luxembourg. The food was wonderful, and after a couple hours, we finished and wandered into the garden. A guy was playing classical music on a record player under the gazebo as people strolled along under the orange leaves and grey skies. Zoe said she felt like she was in a movie, and I couldn’t help but agree with her. It rained while we were there and we took shelter under the trees and watched people hurry past under their umbrellas.

Afterwards, Zoe lead the way back to Shakespeare and Co. (and once again, there were the crowds that we had missed) because she wanted to buy a book. I myself bought an English language Indian book about an Indian student at an American university. It sometimes amazes me how global everything has become.

We headed back after that and had a simple meal at a local café. We were exhausted, and we still had to pack. Tomorrow was our last day.

D’Orsay and the Arch

Is it possible to fall in love with a museum? I suppose if it’s possible to fall in love with a city, it’s possible to fall in love with a building.

Anyway, I think I found my artistic soul mate: Museé d’Orsay. Contained within this former train station is nearly 100 years of (mostly) French art from the 1830’s to 1914. It’s got (nearly) all the famous symbolists, naturalists, impressionists, neo-impressionists, and more: Van Gogh, Dega, Renior, Monet, and others populate the iron-strung walls of this building.

We spend about four and a half to five hours there, in which I tried to see everything. I spent an hour in their prostitution exhibit (all very French), taking in the complex images of the French sex trade (illegal and legal). At the gift shop afterwards, I saw Dame Helen Mirren. I was too afraid to ask for an autograph or a picture.

Afterwards, I wandered around, taking in the symbolists, naturalists, and others. I stopped by to see Van Gogh and gazed at the brush strokes and the people vying for a picture of them. Then on to the impressionists (and the crowds). My heart literally sped up at the sight of my favorite painters and (some of) their most famous works. If it wasn’t for the crowds, I could’ve spent hours in that room.

My last stop was a female photographers’ exhibit (which was a bit out of place now that I think of it). While it was a little underwhelming compared to what I had seen minutes before, it was still fascinating and very well done. The self-portraits were fantastic, and I couldn’t help but take a second to gaze into the eyes of the Migrant Mother.

I was thrilled yet exhausted by the time we left. I would come back every day if the museum wasn’t so far.

Afterwards, we made our way to the Arch de Triumph, bumping into several outdoor modern art exhibits including an inflatable Swiss chalet along the River Seine, and a modern installation next to the Jardin des Tuileries. To get to the arch we also had to pass the tourist/international/glitzy/rich shopping district on Av. des Champs-Élysées. A combination of Oxford Street and Piccadilly Circus in London, it blatantly lures tourists and wealth in like flies to a porch light. I’ve seen it all before.

After taking a quick picture at the arch, we decided that we were too tired and too cheap to try to look for something to eat there, so we went back to the neighborhood of our Airbnb and ate a café there.

Louvre and Eiffel

It was a cold and damp morning. Zoe was asleep, so I wandered through the supermarket near us and the neighborhood surrounding us, passively observing the middle class Persians and their habitat. They walked past on the street with their shopping bags, hunched from the abnormal chill. Everything was relatively deserted.

It made a marked contrast to what I saw later in the day. Once Zoe woke up we headed to the Louvre. We waited in line outside with the rest of the tourists for 40 minutes to get in. We were surrounded by non-French speaking people, mostly Americans. There was a British couple down a ways that was drinking tea and eating cookies (sorry, biscuits).

Needless to say, we eventually got in. As was expected, the crowds were intense, and after we bought our tickets, Zoe and I decided to split up. I made my way to the top in search of a Vermeer. I never did find it (the area had been sectioned off from the public) though I spend most of the time trying to make my way towards it. In my search, however, I did get to see a whole bunch of paintings that before had only seemed to live in the pages of my art history textbook.

And before you ask, yes, I did get to see Mona Lisa, or rather I saw more of the crowds surrounding her. There were masses of people, all pushing and vying for a better look (or really a better photo) of the famous woman. Their eagerness was unreal.

I also saw the other famous women who call the Louvre home: The Winged Victory and Venus de Milo, both impossibly beautiful and constantly being hoarded by adoring fans (though to a lesser extent than Ms. Lisa).

I wanted to stay and see more but after three and a half hours I was exhausted both mentally and physically. So we left the masses and wandered around St. Germain for food. We eventually found a little café which, coincidently, was also being populated by Americans. Zoe and I grimaced at their loud, brash American-ness as we ate our simple, French food.

It was getting even colder and had started to drizzle by the time we left the café, yet we still decided to walk over to the Eiffel Tower. We made our way through St. Germain and a random Russian/Soviet market, slowly getting closer and closer to the monument. The streets were nearly empty, the tourist-y restaurants and hotels full of people huddled around the heaters. No one had expected this weather.

Which was why, when we got to the tower, it was relatively empty. The beauty of the monument, Zoe’s pleading, and the short lines convinced me to pay the nearly €15 to go to the top. It was a breath-taking sight and it was worth every penny (as they say in the movies), but Zoe and I were absolutely freezing by the end.

We wasted no time rushing back to our Airbnb and falling into the warm sheets.

A Break in Paris

Paris. Like all major, international cities, its streets have been reproduced hundreds of times in film, literature, and more. Its images are so common that they have seeped into our subconscious and have been romanticized to the point of caricature.

I’ve never been a huge romantic when it came to Paris. London was always my city. But my friend Zoe wanted to go for our fall break, and I had no major objections, so I said yes. Plus, it would be one more famous place I could say I’ve been to, that I could check off my sights-of-the-world-list.

And there we were, recovering from being scammed out of €60, digesting delicious yet rich French food, and relaxing in our residential Airbnb (we have the whole apartment to ourselves). Zoe was exhausted from the early start, and I was feverously reading guide books and roughly planning our next four days.

We went to Notre Dame already. That was the first thing we did after checking into our Airbnb. We traveled all the way to the top of one tower and gazed at the ever-expanding city below us. It was beautiful.

We walked along the river after that, constantly referencing Midnight in Paris (the only movie about Paris that we’ve both seen enough to reference) and observing the famous love locks.

After a two hour dinner at a delightful, French tearoom called La Fourmi Ailée (literally The Flying Ant), we took refuge from the rain in Shakespeare and Company. I felt like a proper fictional character at that moment. All I needed was to be carrying a romantic novel under my arm and then bump into a handsome, sensitive guy with a sense of humor.

But sadly, reality rarely mimics fiction.