Monday, September 10, 2012

Paris, The First Trip - France

We made it! We have lived in Germany for four weeks now. It's okay. But I don't want to talk about that right now. What I want to talk about is the spur of the moment trip to Paris that we went on the first weekend we were here. 

When we got here we were dumped into temporary living on base here in Heidelberg. What? Heidelberg? I thought you were going to Wiesbaden you might be saying. More on that later. So yes, I live in Heidelberg, Germany. And we were in temporary living on the base there which is really a hotel room. Nobody was really too happy. After all the lead up to coming here, the selling of the house, the parties, the teary good-byes and then we get here and bam. Nothing to do. Let's go to Paris!

We rented a car and then drove to Paris. Why didn't we take the train you might be asking. Here's why. The train is expensive. As in around €115. One way from Frankfurt to Paris. Times that by 6 and then double it for our trip back. Currently one Euro equals $1.28. Pretty pricey for a weekend to Paris. So we rented a van for the bargain price of 500 Euro and off we went. 

We had no idea where we were going. We put 'Paris' into the GPS and started driving. Now here is where I made a huge mistake. My children were currently driving me crazy so I came up with the brilliant idea that there would be no iPod's or Nintendo DS's allowed on the drive. We were going to be driving through the French countryside! Look at that! The drive from Heidelberg to Paris is a pretty straight shot on the A6 to the A4 (European highways). Through Germany we drove through some beautiful hills with little villages tucked into the valleys. White houses with red tiled roofs. A picturesque church steeple rising out of the middle. Then we hit France. Nothing against France but the landscape changed pretty quickly from rolling hills to basically flat plains of corn and grain. Tractors were busy tilling the fields. Cows roamed and mooed at us. We yelled out the windows, "Hello French cows!" 

After about an hour of French countryside, my kids were bored stiff. I started getting comments like "Really Mom? Enjoy the French countryside? It looks just like Kansas." Which it did. And what do kids do when they are bored? They tease and bug each other. 

Finally, after about 4 and half hours we had Paris in our sights. Mind you, we had no idea where we were going. We had no hotel reservations. We just got in our Volkswagen rental van (we are so German) and took off. Paris streets are a little different than American streets. First, there really are no lanes. It's an every man for himself kind of attitude. And there are a lot, I mean A LOT of tiny one way streets. It's a maze. Luckily for us the geographic center of Paris is quite near the Eiffel Tower. We found a parking spot and got out.

And the first thing we saw was a woman squatting behind a tree peeing with her skirt up around her waist. Welcome to Paris.

It was a quick walk to the Eiffel Tower. The sun had just set so we were in for a real treat. The Eiffel Tower is lit in these golden colored lights.

And then every hour on the hour, it twinkles with white lights like a giant Christmas Tree.

It was magic. 

After watching the Eiffel Tower go twinkle (not tinkle like the lady behind the tree) and eating some hot fresh berry crepes at the foot of it, we were pretty tired. It was time to find a hotel. We drove past a Holiday Inn Express and checked to see if they had any vacancies, but unfortunately, they didn't. But the one down the road did! Spent the night in a Holiday Inn Express. A French Holiday Inn Express. The breakfast they offered was very French. Unflavored yogurt. Blech! Lunch meat on croissants. That was okay. 

We decided to see some sights. First was the Cathédrale of Notre Dame which I have to say is celebrating it's 850th anniversary this year! I can't fathom anything being that old and still standing. 

It's getting new bells this year. People took down the original bells during the French Revolution (1789-1799) to melt them down into weapons and only cheap hollow sounding bells were ever made to replace them. This year they get an upgrade. The Cathedral of Notre Dame has free admission and the line we stood in out front only took about 20 minutes to get through. While we waited, we took in some of the scenery around the cathedral.

And some of the detail work on the cathedral.

It took over 180 years to build. People who worked on it for their entire lifetime wouldn't live to see it's completion. That's dedication. 

We went inside and had a seat. I sat there on the hard wooden pews imagining what had taken place in this magnificent hall.

How many people have sat here for hundreds of years listening to preaching? Had anyone ever begged for their life? How many people were married here? Were they happy or were they scared? How many people sat in the confessionals listing sins? How many people sat at the feet of unmoved stone saints pleading for help?

There was only one way to pay proper respect and that was with a quick silent prayer that those souls that were here in the past found rest and those that came in the future would find answers and peace. And onward we go.

We ate at a cute French street cafe were we had coque monsieurs and pommes frites (french fries). Very tasty.

We decided to check out the Louvre Museum. Upon arriving there we realized it was really too late to start something of that magnitude so we went sight-seeing around that area. My son Aidan had one hope when we came to Paris and that was to see a mime. Street performers have been outlawed in Paris so he was pretty much out of luck. He decided that if he couldn't see a mime, then he would be a mime.

Aidan in a box.

Aidan pulling on an imaginary rope. 

After a long day we went to find a new hotel room. We wanted to see different areas of Paris so we decided to stay in a new hotel every night. The next hotel we stayed at was definitely not the Holiday Inn. It was tiny on a tiny one way street. The elevator was literally the size of a broom closet. There was only room for one person and one bag at a time. The rooms only came with two twin beds so we had to get three rooms. Got kind of pricey. Matt had parked illegally to register and then was advised if he wanted his car in the morning he better move it. He then drove around for the next hour looking for a spot. That's the thing about Paris. No where to park. 

The next morning we went to our car and there was a very disturbing pile of something in front of it. A pile of poo. Not dog poo. Certainly not horse poo. It looked like someone had an emergency and ducked for cover between our high profile vehicle (Volkswagen van) and the car in front of us. We were disgusted. We drove right back to the Holiday Inn Express where we stayed the first night that has three beds per room instead of two and private underground parking. Ah...

We decided that driving the van around Paris wasn't really working. There are no parking places in Paris. And I really mean none. We parked the van in our poo free parking garage under the wonderful French Holiday Inn Express and had a try on the Métro. The hardest part of riding the Métro was buying our tickets. The system is fully automated and of course in French. We asked this French man of about 25 if he spoke English, he answered a little and then proceeded to help us buy our day long tickets. We headed out for the Catacombes de Paris

The Catacombes de Paris are an underground cemetery where the dead of Paris were placed due to overcrowding of church cemeteries in city limits. They hold about 6 million people. That's a lot of bones.

We rode the Métro. Got to the catacombs, and had them close five minutes before we got there. Ugh. Rode the Métro back to the Eiffel Tower. Climbed Eiffel Tower. At this point in our vacation the camera died. Crap. Anyway, the climb up the Eiffel Tower was great. Worked off all those crepes and eclairs we had been eating. Well, maybe not all the crepes and eclairs. We had eaten a lot. 

Had one last opportunity to eat dinner in Paris. Chose a little out of the way restaurant. At this point in our trip we had yet to meet a person that we needed to converse with that didn't speak English. At both hotels the staff had perfect English. At the French cafes they had passable English. Wasn't too bad. At this restaurant, the staff had basically no English. It wasn't a problem though. We had a great waitress. When we would point at the menu and say qu'est si voici (what is this) and she would say cow and then we would say beef? And she would laugh and say Oui! Beef! We still weren't too sure of what was going to show up on the plates when we got the food.

Paris wasn't all perfect though. It was hot for Paris. About 85° F (29.5° C). Pretty warm for walking around. And nothing, I mean nothing, is air conditioned. Whew. We got warm. And drinks. That is another problem. Paris drinking water is disgusting. They don't even have an option for it on the menu. If you ask for water they bring you a €4 bottle of Evian that is about the equivalent of 10 ounces. Not that thirst quenching. And bathrooms. There aren't a whole lot of them. Probably why we saw a woman peeing and then poo in front of our car. Every time we went anywhere we asked if they had a toilette and forced our kids to go. We never (thankfully) had to use the public bathrooms on the street where you have to pay. And trash. There is a lot of it. Major tourist attractions like the Eiffel Tower and the Cathedral of Notre Dame were pretty clean. When you got off the beaten track like we did at our second French hotel you see a lot of garbage on the sidewalks and streets. And urine. Every stairwell to the Métro, walking along the Seine River, every alleyway reeks of overpowering urine. Paris has been settled for about 2,000 years. I figure there's bound to be some pee smell here and there.

So that was it. Well, maybe not all of it. Andre got to see that his name really is French.

Buildings everywhere said 'André This' and 'André That'. 

We had fun, but not too much fun. Here are a couple more pics of our time in Paris.

When we returned back to Heidelberg, we mentioned to some people we met that we had gone to Paris. Their reaction was, "Ewww, Paris in the summer? Never go in the summer. Always spring or fall."

Okay. Spring or fall. And I must say this advice is some that I will follow. Paris was crowded. Like crazy crowded. When we were on the Metro the train cars were about 90° F (32.2° C) and we were pushed in there against all these hot bodies. Hot, French, bodies. 

This is what I learned and what I will pass on to you for travelling to Paris.

1- Driving to Paris isn't too bad. Driving IN Paris sucks. Get a hotel with a parking garage.

2- Learn a couple of French phrases before you go. People are much more willing to speak to you in English if you ask them in French.

3- Use as much French as you can when speaking with a French person. They really appreciated it (even if it's only merci).

4- Take your budget and then add at least 25%. Paris is expensive.

5- Embrace the Métro. It really is the easiest way to get around. You just first have to figure out how to use the ticket machine.

6- Have a plan and research it. I guess that goes without saying. Something we didn't know is that museums in Paris are closed on Mondays. Would have been helpful before we showed up at the Louvre and the catacombs on Monday. 

7- Tell all of your friends that you are going to Paris. Rub it in their faces. For some reason the fact that we drove off to Paris for a long weekend has upped my coolness factor with some people. More than moving to Germany. Who knew?

We are planning a second trip to Paris next year to see the things we didn't get the chance to last month. Stay tuned for Paris - Trip Numero Deux in the spring! Next trip, Sweden!

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