On the morning of the 29th of April, I was standing at a ticket counter in Marseille’s train station, probably with a forlorn look on my face. The woman behind the counter had just told me that all the 2nd-class seats on the trains from Marseille to Paris that day were booked. My only option was to buy a 1st-class ticket for 60 euros, almost as much as I had spent on all my previous train journeys combined.
I try to learn from the mistakes I make while traveling. From this mistake, I learned to reserve train tickets at least a few days in advance, especially if the destination is a major city.
Even after deriving a lesson from it, I feel horrible for days after wasting money on my trip. I’ve thought a lot about whether it’s a good quality or a bad quality to feel that way. I decided that it’s mostly a good quality. I don’t obsess over the lost money because of greed. It’s more because losing the money hurts my self-esteem as a backpacker.
In this case, my misery disappeared in only a few hours, when the train pulled into Paris. My thoughts changed to happy ones about the week I would spend with my dad in the apartment we were renting in one of the world’s greatest cities.
Our apartment was in the Latin Quarter, which is called that not because its residents are Latino immigrants, as I supposed, but because it’s the location of the University of Paris, a.k.a. Sorbonne, and Latin used to be widely spoken in the neighborhood by students and professors. Due to the large student population, the neighborhood has relatively cheap restaurants and pastry shops. I bought a pastry from the shop next to our apartment building almost every day, usually a bun with cream and raisins on top.
The Latin Quarter also includes the beautiful Luxembourg gardens, which gave me a good first impression of Paris when my dad and I took a walk there shortly after I arrived.
Living in the apartment, I experienced the delight of becoming reacquainted with the conveniences I used to take for granted. I put my shampoo and soap in the shower, knowing that for the next week I wouldn’t have to move them in and out of plastic bags every day. I slept without fear that some jerks would come into the room drunk at 3 A.M. and wake everyone up. I made something in the kitchen without bumping shoulders with other guests, taking food out of a fridge that wasn’t packed and didn’t smell. I washed my clothes without having to pay 9 euros. I used a computer that worked well, for as long as I wanted.
The unexpected cream filling of the apartment was a wall of DVDs, about half of them French and the other half American classics. On the second night we watched Pulp Fiction. I got really excited watching it and I couldn’t stop thinking about it afterwards. I think it affected me strongly because it was the first movie I had seen in two months, so the images, dialogue and violence were more striking for me.
My father and I fit a lot more sightseeing in a day than I usually do. When staying in hostels, my routine is to spend about half the day doing something and the other day relaxing with a book or with people. However, my dad and I were out and about from breakfast to dinnertime nearly every day, mostly because there’s so much to do in Paris.
We spent much of the first few days checking out sites like the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, which, despite representing Paris on the covers of thousands of guidebooks, neither of us found very interesting. At the Arc de Triomphe I got my first glimpse at the smug figure of Napoleon, which I would see dozens more times in painting and sculpture over the next week.
One landmark that did fascinate us was the Notre Dame cathedral, the first Gothic cathedral I had seen on my trip. It was packed with beauty and detail, like all cathedrals built over centuries by thousands of men. Above the entrance, there is a stone carving of the day of judgment, which I have seen depicted in many places on my trip. I always like to observe the mournful faces of the sinners filing into hell while being pestered by jubilant demons.
Inside are magnificent stained glass windows and a wood carving that tells the story of Jesus’s life. Every cathedral I visited in Italy was decked out with gold and different colors of marble inside, but the interior of the Notre Dame was pure stone, which made it look less cluttered, emphasizing its already extraordinary size.
We visited one art museum a day on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. On Monday we went to the Louvre, Paris’s most celebrated and therefore most crowded museum. There, I learned that my rule about Italy applies everywhere: if a place is really awesome, it will attract enough tourists to completely cancel out its awesomeness. I found a lot of art I liked there, such as the works of the Revolution-era French painter Jacques-Louis David (even his depictions of Napoleon), and those of the Dutch painter Adriaen van Ostade, whose paintings of humble-looking people in humble callings show a realistic and affectionate view of humanity.
Unfortunately, the masses of tourists made it difficult to enjoy the Louvre. Whether there were so many peoplethat I was bound to run into some rude ones, or whether being packed into a place with so many others makes people rude, I don’t know. All I know is that many people were taking an inappropriate amount of pictures and showed a lack of respect for my personal space. The viewing area for the Mona Lisa was especially bad, sort of like a cattle farm where half the cattle are holding up cameras to take pictures.
Another downside of the Louvre was its daunting size. Unless you speedwalk through, it’s impossible to see everything in one day. We had to skip most of the ancient art wings.
The next day we went to the Musee d’Orsay, which was also crowded, but not intolerably so. It had an excellent collection of late 19th-century Impressionist paintings, including ones by Matisse, Gauguin, Degas, and Monet. When we went, there was a large exposition of Manet’s work. The museum is in a converted train station which was probably in use around the time the paintings were created.
On Wednesday we went to the Pompidou, which takes up where the Musee d’Orsay left off, showing art from the early 20th century to the present. I had trouble appreciating much of the recent post-modern art, but I enjoyed the works of Picasso, Kandinsky and Ferdinand Leger. The Pompidou’s building is even more distinctive than those of the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay, especially in Paris, where there are few modern buildings. The innards of the building are exposed and color-coded depending on their function. The escalator runs up a tube that offers a great view of Paris.
Most of central Paris consists of 5-6 story apartment buildings with dark blue roofs along wide boulevards that were built during Haussman’s reconstruction of Paris. Today, I would deplore any program that wiped out the historical layout of a city the way his did, but I have to admit that it resulted in a beautiful, friendly-looking, clean-looking city that’s easy to navigate.
I enjoyed the examples of art nouveau scattered around the city. Art nouveau is a style that wasn’t around for as much time as it deserved. Along with the famous entrances to the Metropolitain, we spotted an art nouveau church and a few apartment buildings.
On Friday we took a train to Versailles and saw more great architecture – great both in the sense of “excellent”, and the sense of “colossal”. Everything at Versailles seems calculated to emphasize the power of the French monarchy: the paintings and statues of glorious moments in France’s history; the opulent furniture; the gold gates, windows and balconies; the mathematical design of the gardens and canals; and the immensity of everything. Yet, this opulence brought about the monarchy’s downfall.
Since my dad was in town, I got to experience a higher standard of cuisine than I’m used to on this trip. It will be painful when I have to go back to the grocery store to buy tuna again. I made sure to try escargot, which was pretty good. But my favorite French dish is croque madame – ham in between toast, with melted cheese and an egg on top. It is moderately priced, so I might order it again before I leave France.
My friend Roland flew into Paris on Thursday to join us. After going two months without seeing a familiar face, it was nice to be playing Rummy 500 that evening with two people from my life in Columbus. Roland and I are traveling to Rouen on the 9th, and after a few days there we are moving on to Barcelona and Madrid.