Sunday, August 10, 2014

The internet woes

So I've just moved into my new apartment, which is really exciting, but also frustrating, because I don't have internet yet.  As much as I would love to pretend otherwise, I can't afford to go to cafes every day to log on, so it'll have to wait until after I have financial aid, which should be next week.  Check back, the next blog is coming!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

La vie Parisienne Pt 2

Welcome to the second half of my Paris adventure!  

I'm just going to cut to the chase here, so prepare for photos!

On my third day I decided to check out a free walking tour I'd heard about.  I mean, I can't really say no to free, right?  Plus, this tour would take me to the Louvre, and that had been my plan for the day, so I figured I would just sneak off when we got there and leave the rest of the tour to people who were maybe more interested.  

We met at Place St. Michel, and as it turned out, it was PACKED.  Apparently no one can say no to free.

I was put into an English speaking tour with this guy: seemed pretty cool at first, certainly funny, I later realized he was a raging jerk, but the tour was still decent.  Wish I hadn't tipped him, though.

 The first place we went was Pont Neuf, which I'd already seen, but not from beneath.  He told us the history of the bridge, that it was the first stone bridge built in Paris, and that the people then had been convinced it wouldn't work and would collapse.  It is now the oldest surviving bridge in Paris.

Also it has stone busts of drunk people.

Pretty sure this is the king that built it.

I told you the Love Bridge would come up again, didn't I?

That's the academy in the background.

So once upon a time, a girl named Carrie Bradshaw loved a man named Big, and they became engaged on this bridge in a terrible television show in the early 2000s.  The next week, little padlocks began popping up on the bridge with names written on them.  The idea is that you and the person you love go to the bridge, write your names on a padlock you probably bought from a guy at the end of the bridge for three euros, find a spot to put the lock on the bridge, hold hands, and chuck the keys into the Seine below.  Then the lock stays there forever and ever, a sign of the everlasting love, or until a man comes along every three years or so and cuts the locks off, which the tour guide thought was mighty amusing. 

Funnily enough, about a week after I was there part of the bridge collapsed due to the weight of the locks.  Love is a heavy burden to bear, apparently.

At this point in the tour we reached the Louvre.  I was beginning to feel uncomfortable about sneaking away, so I figured I'd just hop on the metro and return once the tour was over.  Besides, at this point I still liked the tour guide.  

Once we had talked about the museum for a bit, the guide gave us a ten minute photo break during which he revealed his terrible personality to me when I asked him to explain what he meant when he said the words, "it's closed on Tuesdays."  What's closed on Tuesdays?  The Museum itself, or the entrance you were talking about?  He apparently didn't like that I wasn't psychic and was quite rude in informing me that the whole damn thing was closed and why didn't I already know that?  I considered asking him to also explain a bit more about how he made his money, it was on tips, wasn't it?

But I was a good girl, I bit my tongue and took about sixteen photos, all of which look like this:

We then walked through Tulleries gardens and down to the Place de la Concorde where the tour broke up and I gave the guy five euros for his troubles before I ran away like a little rabbit.  Here's a view of the Eiffel Tower from the Place de la Concorde. 

The problem was, I no longer had plans.  I couldn't go to the Louvre and it was too late to go to Versailles.  So I left the Place and wandered down Le Champs Elysees just for the fun of it.  I thought I might buy something silly just to say I'd bought it there, but in the end I just continued on to the Arc de Triomphe, which, thanks to my luck, was in the process of being restored.  But it was still pretty amazing.

All the people getting their pictures taken in front of the Arc.

So here's something weird: this next photo is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  I've seen one of these tombs in each of the countries I've visited now, but only in Paris did I have to stand to the side to take the photo in order to avoid the tourists taking selfies with it.  Selfies.  Of a tomb.  A monument to all the lost and unnamed men who have died in the horror of war.  These people come along with their huge fancy cameras, look at this somewhat gut-wrenching monument and think, "Man, I should get a selfie with this." Humanity is doomed.  

After this I managed to find a cafe where I could sit and write for a bit.  But cafes were so awkward for me, because, as an American, I feel bad sitting for hours and only buying one thing.  So I scrammed pretty quickly and went back to my hostel.  Also, I could just feeeeeel the hatred from the man working.  Gotta love Paris.

Now, I may not have mentioned this before, but my niece has been doing a Flat Stanley project for her school, and I was supposed to be taking photos with her paper doll during my trip, but upon getting back to my hostel I realized that I hadn't taken a single photo with the doll since the top of the Eiffel tower on my first day.  So I put on my superhero cape, bought a few tickets for the metro, and managed to go to every single monument I'd been to to take photos in only a few hours.  Literally, EVERY monument.  I have seventy photos just of that excursion.  After that I went back to my hostel and tried to go to bed, although I didn't end up sleeping until around midnight, which made the next day a bit miserable.

The problem was I now needed to try and fit both Versailles and The Louvre into a single day.  I left Paris at about eight in the morning and found the train I needed to Versailles.  After sleeping the entire way, I met another family going to the palace as well.  They suggested that I go to the tourism office so I wouldn't have to wait in line for my ticket, which apparently could take hours.  They were older and wiser and had been before, so I decided to heed their advice, which was both lucky and unlucky.

The tourism office informed me that, as a student in the EU, I would have free admission to all the palaces and gardens, so I saved twenty euros by going to the office instead of buying on sight, where I would have just paid without question.  Then I figured, since I was saving so much money, I might as well rent the audio tour the woman suggested, which would give commentaries of the palace, the gardens, and all the outlaying regions.  For only seven euros, I was still saving twelve euros.  What I didn't yet realize was that I had no money left on my international debit card, so the twenty euros I had to leave as a security deposit almost completely wiped me out.  This came into a bit later when I was buying lunch.  I'll get to that.  First: The palace!

first view of the Chateau!

Did I mention it was pouring rain and freezing cold?

The gardens from inside.

Inside the Hall of Mirrors.

The Lime Avenue.

So now for the first part of the day's drama.  

At this point in the gardens I realized I was hungry, but I also had figured out that I had no money.  The chocolate croissant and apple I'd brought did little to satisfy me.  I was also somewhat miffed because I realized that the audio tour I'd paid for was a complete scam.  The Palace of Versailles not only offers free audio tours to all their guests, but they are integral to the design of the museum.  Many of the rooms on the first floor were completely empty but for a video without audio.  Rather, the audio track plays automatically on the tour they give you upon arrival, so NOT having their tour basically renders the museum a bunch of silent awkwardness.  

So I had no money, an audiotour I didn't need, and a growling stomach.  

I managed to find a cafe that had sandwiches for only a few euros, which was good since I only had ten euros left on my debit card.  The problem was that all of the cafes required a ten euro minimum purchase.  Lucky for me, the guy working at this particular cafe was a misogynistic prig who said he'd wave the minimum but stared openly at all of my parts and said something distinctly digusting to me in broken english.  It then transpired that the cheese sandwich I got was NOT like the cheese sandwich I'd gotten the day before with brie, chevre, and swiss, but rather plain bread with a few wimpy slices of swiss cheese.  I didn't stay at the cafe, but rather left the creeper max to his own devices and ended up crouched behind a statue trying to get out of the rain eating my plain sandwich with a few packets of spicy mustard. 

So, if you can't tell, I was fairly miserable at this point.  I was exhausted, I had no money, I was soaking wet, and seriously underwhelmed.  I couldn't find anywhere to sit out of the rain, and ended up wandering around a gift shop until I gave in and asked the woman working if there was somewhere that I could sit down out of the rain.  

I figured she would direct me to a cafe or a bench under an awning or something, but instead she cleared a bench that was being used as a display table and told me I was welcome to stay as long as I needed.  She even asked if she needed to call someone.  Clearly I looked even worse than I felt, which is saying something because I felt dead on my feet, freezing cold, and on the verge of tears.  I ended up explaining to her everything that had happened, from the audio tour to the rain to the exhaustion, and how I was going to have to give up and go back to my hostel to sleep.   She, however, was adamant that I shouldn't leave.  "It's Versailles!" She said.  

In the end she directed me to a cafe near to us in the garden where I could get a coffee and perk up.  We agreed that, after an hour or so, if I still felt like death I could go home, but that I shouldn't leave until then.  I gave up on using my international debit card and accepted the daily international charge on my regular card.  With a strong coffee in hand I made my way into the lobby of the cafe to find a seat, and then realized that there were none.  A woman nearby saw me and asked if I was alright, to which I replied that I had hoped to sit.  She suggested finding a spot outside until someone left, which was what I did.  There were at least umbrellas to stay out of the rain, and my coffee was warm.  

Apparently, however, I still looked awful because after ten minutes she came out to get me and told me she had checked and that there were tables upstairs where I could sit.  This woman whom I had never before met had gone upstairs for the soul purpose of checking to see if there was a table for me.  I'd now met two people who were just genuinely kind and helpful.  The day was finally beginning to look up.  

It was at this point, sitting upstairs drinking my coffee, so tired that I felt almost drunk, that I realized my audio tour wasn't such a scam after all.  The free audio tour didn't cover anything but the Chateau, where mine covered the whole of the grounds.  I warmed up, dried off, and decided that since I was close enough, it might be silly not to at least see Le Petit Trianon.  

By the time I left the Petit Trianon, I was fully awake again and figured I'd have time to hit the Grand Trianon before calling it a day.

I will admit that after seeing the Grand Trianon, I wasn't just done because I was tired, I was a bit Versailles'ed out.  So I stopped at the gift shop and thanked the woman for keeping me from giving up, found my way out and back onto the train into Paris for the final adventure: The Louvre.

The luckiest part about having to delay my Louvre plans was that Wednesday was free for students, so I not only got into Versailles for free, but I didn't have to pay for the Louvre either.  I was, of course, exhausted at this point, so I planned to find the Mona Lisa, wander for a bit, and then skeedaddle out of there.

What you actually see when you visit the Mona Lisa.

Random stranger offered to take my photo and decided, why not?

So here's where the drama started at the Louvre.  As you can tell, I was having a very up and down day.  

I was about to leave when I checked a map and saw that I had somehow missed the Venus de Milo.  Now, I couldn't let that happen, so I turned around and went back.  After a bit of searching I found her.  Look at that beauty.  I took several photos of her and I took a few more with the paper doll for my niece.  

Then I tried to get a selfie with her, because, hey, why not.  I put the doll in the outside pocket of my purse, took a photo, and then walked across the room to the statue of Athena.  This next photo is taken of the room with Athena from directly in front of the Venus de Milo.  You can see Athena right above the head of the seated statue in the foreground.  

 I took this photo, then reached into my bag for the paper doll... and it was gone.

I panicked.  I immediately scanned the floor around me, then all along the path I'd taken from the Venus de Milo.  Then the area around the de Milo.  Then the hands of all the children in the room.  I eventually attracted the attention of the docent at the entrance to the room, who in turn brought in someone who could speak English.  The three of us scoured the room, and I showed a previous photo of the doll to all the guests, but to no avail.  The docents were sure that if I went to the guest services, the doll would be there in lost and found.

At this point, I was at the end of my rope.  From a sleepless night, to a disastrous beginning to the day, to rain, and now to a runaway paper doll, I sat my little self down in the Louvre on a bench across from the Venus de Milo, and had a little cry.  I was convinced I was the worst auntie in the history of aunties and I was going straight to auntie hell.  I was also just sort of done with the whole damn day.

Which is where my day again turned around.  It seemed that no matter what happened, no matter how bad it got, I was fated to turn around and run smack into something wonderful.

In this case it was a kindly docent who saw me walking away from the Venus de Milo practically sobbing who took me into his arms and tried his hardest to comfort me.  It turns out that, while the stereotype of Parisians being quite rude is fairly correct, that all falls apart the moment they see you down.  He sat me down and let me cry for a bit before he sent me on feeling, if not any less miserable, at least a little comforted.

Bear in mind, all of this happened in a total of about eight minutes.

I walked in a daze after my roller coaster day and managed to get this photo of the inverted pyramid made popular by the da Vinci Code, surrounded by teenagers in their natural habitat.

Note the Apple logo, that's because directly beneath the crystal pyramid is an Apple store. And a shopping mall in general.

I did manage to force myself into the gift shop, reasoning that I would hate myself later if I bought nothing, not even post cards.

I ended up finding a magnet of the Mona Lisa for five euros, because, gift shops, and a small stack of postcards for one euro fifty a piece.  Then, by some weird trick of fate, I found a paper doll of Marie Antoinette for five euros seventy five.  She came with three dresses and a stand, and somehow only cost seventy five cents more than a magnet the size of a compact mirror.

I have therefore reasoned that the paper doll loved the Louvre so much that she decided to stay, made a break for freedom at the Venus de Milo, and sent Marie Antoinette to take her place.

One last photo of the Louvre.

I can't explain that weird day, the roller coaster ride that it entailed, and the bizarre collection of memories left over from it, but I can tell you quite safely that I did NOT leave my heart in Paris.  Maybe Berlin.  Definitely London.  Je n'aime pas Paris.  Or maybe thats just La Vie Parisienne.

Next blog: Germany!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

La Vie Parisienne

I'm sitting here in the dead of summer in a house that is now roughly the same temperature as the surface of the sun, and thinking about all the myriad things I need to be doing.  Things like cleaning my ridiculously messy bedroom, planning for my new apartment, or, you know, working on that novel I wrote.  So naturally I made a peach cobbler and am now eating it.  I think that I deserve credit for turning off the television for the first time this summer.

Well, I also need to be writing a blog, so I guess I am being somewhat productive.

We left off as I was departing for Paris.  The bus left Victoria Coach at eleven o'clock pm, and I won't pretend that I didn't push people out of my way to be sure I got a window seat, but for an eight hour ride, it was for everyone's benefit.  Here's a little photo blog:

Walking from the hostel to Victoria Coach

Here's a fun little story.  I decided to take the overnight bus because I would kill two birds with one stone: the trip would double as hostel for the night and transportation.  My bus left London at 11:10pm and arrived Paris at 9:30ish.  I'd spoken to a few people and everyone agreed that this was a fairly good idea.  What no one (Okay, my roommate thought about it and I chose to ignore it because it was too late at that point) thought about was that I'd have to get off the bus at least once for the ferry.  It turned out we needed to get off when we arrived in Dover for passport control.  Then we got back on the bus and the driver told us half an hour.  A few people got off and went to the mall for something to eat and to use the bathroom (pictured below).  I turned on an episode of Downton Abbey figuring it wasn't worth it to go back to sleep if I'd be awoken in half an hour to get on the ferry.

Halfway through my second episode I realized we weren't boarding anytime soon and I was wasting valuable sleeping time.  So I closed my computer and put my head down.  Thirty seconds later the driver turned on the bus and we drove onto the ferry.  Such is life.

Port of Dover
I'd been texting Maureen for a bit but my phone was dying, so finding a plug was sort of a big deal, especially since I'd only be able to use it for a few more minutes and it was reading at about 1%.  Worse, it only had six pounds top up on it, so I'd barely be able to use it in Paris, but I knew I'd need it to get to my hostel.
Omg I got an outlet for my phone of the ferry and it was British!
Once I was plugged in I (tried) to cuddle up and get some sleep.
My corner on the ferry

Last view of Britain- the Port of Dover

It actually worked.  I slept the whole way and woke up when the intercom announced we were entering the Port of Calais (Le Port de Calais).

First view of France- Calais
So I got my things and slumped downstairs after everyone else to get back on the bus.  I didn't waste any time and put my head down before we'd even exited the ferry.  Then I blinked and we were being ushered through customs, which really seemed like it was just passport control again, maybe to make sure we hadn't snuck on during the journey or something.  Then back onto the bus, and I really did sleep.  I blinked again, and we were arriving in Paris.

We all hauled our bags off the bus and I found a place to sit and reorganize, at which point I noticed the small pocket on my bag was open and empty.  I knew my book light had been in there, as well as... something... possibly important... 

I checked the cargo hold on the bus but there was nothing to be seen.  It was officially my first theft of the journey: a book light.  I checked everything else, but it was all in good order, nothing missing at all.  Just a book light.  What the actual hell?

First theft of the journey- A book light and a us/uk power converter worth $0.60 
I later had a panic attack that it had been my hogwarts wax seal, but upon returning to Wales found it safely on my bedside table where I'd forgotten to pack it.  So I'm fairly certain it was just a power converter.  Either way, at the time I was annoyed and confused as to why someone would steal it.  But again, such is life, and I knew even then that it wasn't worth crying over.  So I put on my bag and tried to figure out where to go.  I wasn't even positive I was in the right place until after I'd dug through my bag for a few euros and used the bathroom (30 cents) and found the metro station.  

Now, Metro stations are the same as any other underground station.  You buy a ticket, scan it or swipe it or feed it or whatever the particular station wants, board, deboard, go on with life.  The problem was, even the English machine made NO sense.  I wanted to buy a ticket, so I clicked the ticket button, but nothing happened.  So I decided to go for region, and entered a big station near my destination- Gare du Nord.  Nothing.  According to the machine, Gare du Nord didn't exist.  It was early, and also late, for the station to be particularly busy, so I had to wait a bit for someone to come through.  I finally had to ask a man to help me, and I figured he'd show me the button to push to get a ticket, but instead he walked me through purchasing a ticket, picked out the correct change from my ziplock bag for me, and fed the machine (no, he didn't steal any money), then he showed me which train to take and which direction, and rode with me.  He spoke very little English, but more English than I spoke French, so we swapped languages around as much as we needed to in order to understand each other (a little).  It turned out he was going to Gare de L'est, which is quite close to Gare du Nord, so he rode the few extra stops with me and showed me where to get out.  He also taught me the most important word I was to learn- Sortie- which means "exit."  I snapped this photo of us before he went back to catch the train that would take him to where ever he was going.    His name was Abdel.  Nice guy, actually.  
First friend!
I knew that Gare du Nord was probably one stop too soon, but nice as Abdel was, I wasn't keen on walking him to the door of my hostel.  I figured if he followed me I could go into the train station and lose him.  But of course, he didn't follow me.  So I was free to wander and find my hostel.  I was able to log onto the internet long enough to get a few maps which I saved as photos on my phone and find my way to my hostel.  I did get lost a few times, but it wasn't bad and I found an ATM on the way to pull out around two hundred Euros.

I stayed at a place called Perfect Hostel in the Montmartre district, which ended up being about six blocks away from Sacre Coeur.  Once I'd found it I was able to check the majority of my bags and head out into the city.  The woman behind the counter, who was helpful enough if a little curt, directed me to a patisserie around the corner to could get some breakfast.  Naturally, I got a croissant.

First French food!
And here we have disappointment number one.  I had somehow, foolishly perhaps, expected this to taste ten times better than any croissant I had ever had before.  I expected angels to sing and the heavens to part.  I expected, at least, that it would taste difference.  

Don't get me wrong, it was good.  It wasn't a cafeteria croissant.  It wasn't packaged or from a tube.  But it was just a croissant. It was no better than anything I'd had from any real proper bakery at all, although perhaps a little crispier, and by extension messier to eat.  Good, but ultimately it was a croissant.

My first stop of the day after this was a coffee, where I seriously embarrassed myself with my appalling French.  After that, I had plans for a particular iconic fixture.  

Any guesses?

That's right:

The Eiffel Tower.  

I arrived, exhausted, thinking I'd just look.  But then somehow I ended up in line buying a ticket.  Of course, it wasn't instantaneous.  I waited for some two hours before I was at the booth.  But eventually I was going up, up, up, up the elevator.

I made friends here, too.  They were British, from the North, I can't remember exactly where, and living in Cambridge.  We'll call them Lucy and Rick, (mostly because I still can't remember his name...).  They were great.  We met in line after buying tickets and ended up going all the way up and back down together.  He had been before, but she hadn't (if I remember correctly).  We had fun pointing out Sacre Coeur in the distance and finding different landmarks.  This is them: 

After the Eiffel tower I made my way back to my hostel where I unpacked, met my dorm mate, and started thinking about dinner.  Of course, my guide book ended up being utterly useless, so I had no idea how to eat at a cafe.  That might sound strange, but it is completely true.  I walked into several and stood awkwardly waiting for assistance, before running away in fear of insulting someone.  No one warned me that you just sit and they'll help you.  I wandered first only a few blocks from the hostel, then a few more, and then suddenly I was on the steps of Sacre Coeur, and directly in front of it was a cafe where one of the server spoke nearly perfect English.  He explained how to behave at a cafe, that you should sit and they'd come serve you, and then that I could stay as long as I wanted.  He flirted with me quite a bit and called me enchantingly beautiful, which was all well and good until he turned around and was horrifically racist to a Japanese-American couple to the point where I paid and left immediately.  No thanks.  But still, this was my view:

I had French onion soup and a nutella crepe I couldn't finish.  

The next day it seemed only natural that my first stop should be Sacre Coeur itself.  I have about two hundred photos of the place itself, but none of the inside, which was, I won't lie, spectacularly beautiful.  I can't explain it, really, but it felt so deeply sacred.  Unlike London, where old churches are just giant tourist attractions, Sacre Coeur has roped off the middle portion of the church for those who come to pray and enforce strict, near-silence.  

It was, however, my first real brush with pickpocketers.  They lurked in hordes on each of the landings on the massive steps holding some weird string things which they used to do tricks or make bracelets.  Then while they were entertaining unsuspecting tourists, their friends would come up from behind and walk away with watches, wallets, and passports.  I have to wonder how they got away with it, though, because at least these ones were incredibly obvious.  I'd have ignored them a bit more if it weren't for the fact that when I tried to get past them, one guy reached out and grabbed my wrist to encourage me to stay and I had to jerk away from him.

Anyway, I knew my next stop already.  It seemed obvious after Sacre Coeur, so I caught a train to Île de la Cité and Notre Dame. 

While wandering, the first thing I found was a bridge covered in these locks.  

It's a Paris thing, or at least it started in Paris, this fad of putting a lock on bridge with the person you love and tossing the keys in.  Cute.  I'm mostly only posting this because I like the picture.  This isn't even the actual Love Bridge.  I'll get to that in my next post.

Anyway, just behind the bridge was this beauty:

Again, I am faced with the problem of describing it.  All that I will say is that where Westminster fell short, Notre Dame went above and beyond.  It felt massive and cavernous and sacred.  It was beautiful and still and moving.  That's all I'll say for now.

On my way home I stopped at Pont Neuf for a photo op.

I think I had a sandwich for dinner before I wandered the souvenir shops on the street leading to Sacre Coeur and bought my second round of French macarons and chocolate from a shop called "La Petite Musee du Chocolate" (no idea if that's spelled right).  Pretty sure raspberry was my favorite.  Or rose.  

Tomorrow: my walking tour of Paris, the Arc de Triomphe, a Paris Photo Shoot, Versailles, The Louvre, and the runnaway paper doll.  (And by tomorrow I mean whenever I post the next blog).  Until then, my fearless followers, au revoir!