Friday, March 18, 2011

Thank you Pont des Arts

Nothing wears you out in the way that long international air travel does. It's odd. You are sitting, your mind being the only part getting exercise, yet you lose all energy. You're not storing it anywhere, it is just being sucked into the altitudes. I thought that I would just get more and more excited as I got closer to my destination, but the mounting excitement surfaced as lethargy and a sour disposition. What a way to start a trip.

To top off the foul mood, landing at Charles de Gaulle airport was not what I was hoping for. For some reason or another, I imagined landing, well, at the Louvre...not in a cement wasteland. The bullets falling from the sky added to my dreariness. French hail is an experience, rivaled only by Texas hail, I'm sure. Either way, I was in France, and once I heard nothing but French all around me, and saw nothing but Dior ads, and saw people eating croissants...I forgot that I'd been awake for 28 hours.

The train into Paris seemed to take forever. It was crowded with wet people, hot because it was July and smelled bad...because a large percentage of the train's population had never heard of Old Spice or Secret... 'Nuff said?

...But then, I exited the train at Grands Boulevards and the sun came out. There were birds chirping, cafe attendants drying off the wet tables, steam rising from the streets. It was perfect. I dropped my luggage off at my hotel in Montmartre and went exploring.

Having friends already in Paris made the first day feel like I was still home. We picked up right where we left off, but this time it was with a few bottles of wine and Paris all around us.

I was told that we were heading to a place called Pont des Arts. I had no clue what it was, except that it would no doubt be a bridge. It was Bastille Day, so there were already a lot of people out and about, both tourists and Parisians, but when we got to the pont, it was a different world. The Pont des Arts is a wooden foot bridge crossing the Seine, just down river of the Ile de la Cité and Pont Nuef. Although it is a thoroughfare, it's also the most prime picnicking locale in all of Paris...and the Parisians know it. The view from the bridge is spectacular, but the camaraderie is even better.

Before heading to France, I was told by all too many people "oh, the French don't like Americans. Have fun with that." My first evening on the Pont des Arts disproved this often-told lie. We sat with our bottles of wine, our cheeses and baguettes, and me with my watercolors, and soaked in the people around us. Our neighbors all made such strong efforts to welcome us in English. We shared wine with complete strangers. One man gave us lessons on how to pick a good bottle of French wine. He defined the different regions and then explained what you'll get with vin de table vs Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée. He told us about what it's actually like to get to live in Paris... for real.

This was only my first night in the city of lights. What a way to set the stage for the amazing adventures to come.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Wine and Cheese

Think of Paris. What is the first experience that comes to mind? Is it standing in a long line to see the Mona Lisa? Or maybe going on a dinner cruise on the Seine? Or is it sitting on a balcony or hanging out a window, drinking wine and eating cheese? For me, I had thought of that last option as just a bonus between outings. Not so though. It is an attraction and experience in itself.

When I look for wine, I seek out something that has an interesting label or that's been a personal recommendation, but most often I do base my decision off of the label. So, what does one do when all labels look the same and nothing is in English? Well, naturally, pick the one that stands out for other reasons: the bottle is mis-shapen and it's a rosé. Two characteristics that no other wine seemed to have, problem solved. I must've struck gold.Now then, cheese. When in Paris, fromage is everywhere. Camembert, beaufort,
chevre, blue, brie, époisses... The list is almost endless. To make the choice even more difficult, cheese also can come soaked in wine or brandy, in a skin or nude, as a wheel, block or a wedge, soft or hard...or rolled in nuts or fruit. I'll be honest, since I was a little kid I have been in love with raisins. They are my comfort food. As I peered through the glass front of the cheese case, I made my decision: Chevre en robe (goat cheese rolled in raisins).

I opened the wine and the tart smell overtook me. I unrolled the cheese and couldn't slow myself down. At that moment I understood what so many cheesecake makers have tried to create: the perfect balance of tang, sweet, creaminess and perfection, add to that the plump, still juicy raisins, and it was the perfect pairing with the most unusual wine I could've found.

I opened my window and looked out over Montmartre. The smell of Paris wafted in and mixed with my sweet afternoon snack. The sounds of the street joined forces with the squishing and popping of the raisins. I was encapsulated by my surroundings. This is the experience that I didn't plan on or even imagine could've taken me away the way it did. I understand now why Paris exists: to surprise you with every moment.

Strolling along the Champs Elysees

Starting the day, determined to act like a tourist, we leave our humble digs in Ménilmontant and head for the heart of Paris: the Seine. Daily, we've strolled along it, sat beside it, sat above it, watched the boats float by. Today, it is our guide to the Paris we've avoided: The Tourist Core.

We board the Metro at Père Lachaise. There is a lady deep in the tunnel singing loudly. It is bouncing off of ever tile, only interrupted by the occasional train. Although it's early in the day, the stagnant air in the Metro is stiffling and ripe; it's unpleasant, but it's the most memorable scent in all of Paris. We ride the rails until Réaumur - Sébastopol where we exit and stroll through the strange vestibule-labyrinth that is Les Halles. We make it out of the shrubbery and metalwork and exit into a sliver of neighborhood whose sole purpose, I believe, is to provide amazing croissants to those heading to the Louvre.

Seemingly, the street we've escaped to is all flats and art dealers...except for one cafe. Being Americans who naturally (or unnaturally but out of habit) wake up early, we are some of the first customers. The stools are still upside down on the bar. The pain au chocolat and pain au raisin are just being put out. In stark contrast to the Metro, the only smell in the air is now beurre...butter. The cafetier looks at us with the "Non-French speaking tourists..." look. "Bonjour, Je voudrais deux espressos, un pain au chocolat et un pain au raisin, s'il vous plaît." The odd look quickly turns to a smile and we are granted the best breakfast-on-the-go experience that Paris has to offer.

As we approach Rue de Rivoli, the bustling sounds of the day make their way down the alley. Tourist busses, taxis, stout little cars, velos, people on foot: they are all making their way. The busses are heading to the Louve, the taxis to the Bourse, the cars to their random, miniature parking spots and the bicycles, taking their riders to work all around the city. We join the crowd on foot and follow the flow. Some break off and head into the Louvre, some cross the Pont des Arts and we head down in the Jardin des Tuileries.

Walking through the Tuileries is like walking in another world. There is art; perfectly manicured gardens; people quietly strolling, both Parisians and tourists alike. There are sparrows everywhere, singing like Edith Piaf: it's the music of France. The birds are the singers, the boats are percussion and la Tour Eiffel is the conductor.

At the end of the Tuileries lies Place de la Concorde: a whirlwind of golden statues, cars, tourists, L'Obélisque and amazement. The Seine beside us, the Tower looming close by, the Champs Elysees takes us away. We stroll amidst the trees. There are cars on the Champs, but you don't hear them. Unknowingly, we veer onto Voie Georges Pompidou, a picturesque pathway above the river. Park benches every few meters, a stone wall to guide you, statues watching over you: it is an epic walk.

We enjoy a sit watching the boats float down the Seine. The houses across the water seem imaginary: "Who in the world would get to live there? Impossible." After giving our feet a rest, we continue on until we get to Pont de l'Alma. We cross the river; the sound of tourists growing; la Tour Eiffel has disappeared. We continue walking towards where the tower must be, wondering "How can it just disappear like this?" Just a few blocks further we arrive. The base is enormous. Thousands of people are standing, all with their heads back, fighting to see the top. More languages than I could imagine were whirling about.

I played tourist myself. I am now the proud owner of a photograph of me...with my finger touching the top of the Eiffel Tower.

Leave him alone. Let him paint.

Walking out of my hotel in Montmartre, I take a deep breathe and look around. "I am soooo in Paris." That's all I can think. I start to walk to my right and realize that today is going to be a day of decisions and will hold the potential for getting a bit lost. Within one minute of being in the morning, Parisian air I realize that this city is reflective of a spiderweb that's been through a storm and is no longer a simple, circular pattern.

I make my decision and proceed down a narrow street, no map in hand, no plan in mind. The quiet street quickly changes and I discover that I am walking through the fabric district. That's right, I didn't mean fashion. There are men carrying bolts of fabric, throwing them to each other. There are undressed mannequins sitting in the back of a van. There are stylish women...smoking. Yes, this is the Paris I was expecting existed beyond the Louvre.

I continue on, not sure where I'm heading. I move my way through either a Turkish or a Kurdish neighborhood, I'm not sure. It is quite mixed and it is, so far, the loudest place I've experienced in Paris. True, it's only day 2, but still, the cacophony of languages and clattering knick knacks is more than I can process at once. I will say that it smelled amazing, like roasting nuts and spices, with a twinge of city odor.
Moving out of the little pocket of the East, I cross Boulevard de Magenta. There in front of me stands a church in desperate need of either pressure washing or baking soda. It's amazing. Eglise St Laurent stood before me. Black spires, tarnished roof, dirty stained glass: it is the perfect Parisian church. I have to capture it. It must be painted. I sat on a bench, blue sky above, and started dabbing my watercolors.
Not long after I began, a little girl stopped dead in her tracks. She looked confusedly at my flip book of paintings then put her finger in my wet watercolor palate. "Laissez-le tranquille. Il est la peinture" her mother said (Leave him alone. He is painting.) I told her not to worry: "Ne vous inquiétez pas. Elle est bonne." She smiled and walked away with her daughter. Others walked by and glanced down, smiling slightly. It was as if they knew that the purpose of Paris is to paint.

The American Wake Up

I woke up this morning, completely confused.

I swear, two minutes ago I was walking in the Tuileries and so happy to be back in Paris...and then my alarm went off. I will say, this was the most vivid dream I've had in years. I woke up with the smell still in my nose. My feet hurt a little from walking so much. I even felt a little floaty like I'd been enjoying some beverages on the Pont des Arts.

Spending a week in Paris this summer has either damaged me or made me better, I can't tell. I keep thinking back to sitting in the Jardin du Luxembourg, drinking wine from plastic cups, eating chevre rolled in rum-soaked raisins, and painting what lay before me. It's 8:00 o'clock. The police sweep the park and we all must leave and find a new place to people watch...where we sit until 3:00 am.

It's not like that here.

In Paris, you wake up like an American: early, and with the feeling that you have things that must be done. This all changes though when you walk to the window, look outside and realize where you are. There is a little stream running down the street from the nightly street cleaning. The only shops that are open are patisseries and bars serving espresso. There's one or two people walking with briefcases, but you know that they are actually international business people...because Parisians don't force themselves to work early or stay late.

Once you've stared out the window and talked yourself into spending the day like somebody in Paris, then you can truly start to relax, unwinding from the 30 second panic you had as part of your American wake up ritual.

North Pole ahead!

Every day seems too short. The sun seems to set so quickly. The next day is always just around the corner. This seems to be an eternal truth for everybody. I actually had a day where this wasn't the case.

4:30 PM, Pacific Standard Time: board Iceland Air SEA -> KEF. Final destination: Paris, FR.

It's summer in Seattle which can either mean amazing, golden sunshine, or moist drizzly rain. This day was was like most others: a combination of both. The skies had mostly cleared though and I was taking off, out of the Puget Sound area and heading north...far north.

Missing most of the peaks on the west coast, I do get to spy one familiar sight before I head towards a world I've never been before. Rising up in the distance not long after take off, I see Mt. Baker. It is nearly at the Canada / US boarder and still covered in the winter's snow. The golden sunshine that Seattle sometime does get is falling across the mountain. The clouds are hovering just below the summit. It is the perfect sight to say goodbye to as I head out on my European adventure.

Being summertime, sunset happens very late, and the farther north you go, the later it is. When you fly out in the afternoon and pass through the Arctic Circle, that same sunset seems to chase you. Or maybe you're chasing it. It's too hard to tell. Either way, the flight around the Earth is long and the sunlight continually streams through the towering, monumental cloud formations of the Arctic.

Time seems to stop, but actually, you've just managed to skip through time a bit. That sunset that you never want to arrive never does. The sunrise that starts your day, it never comes. You get to continue on. It feels like you've gotten to steal time from somewhere, but it's just travel. It's one more reason that adventures are magical.