Peaks of Paris: Day 5

Sunrise, shower, croissant, metro. The day had started ordinarily enough. We were at République waiting for our connecting train when I sensed it. Across the rail, a woman with a dog stood waiting to board. The dog’s head was fixed in the direction of the train, low growls coming from its tightened throat. A shiver ran between my shoulders. But I shook off the feeling and tried to focus on the day ahead – we were going to Versailles, after all, the most anticipated adventure yet.

The screech of metal alerted us to the train’s arrival. We climbed aboard and took a seat near the back. Jacob nodded off while I figured out which stop would take us out of the city. The train was crowded, with people standing in between the seats. A child sat with his mother in the backmost seat of the train, peppering her with silly, innocent questions in French. There goes the screech again. When I looked up from my map, the familiar lights of the metro station were nowhere in sight. Instead, we were surrounded by the dark concrete walls of the underground tunnel. The train had stopped moving completely at this point, and as I looked up to the digital stop indicator, the device flickered then shut off.

A voice came over the speaker – the conductor. He announced that the train was stopping because a person had been seen in the tunnel. It was hard to discern every word of his French over the cries of nearby children and my own thoughts. Jacob was well awake by this time and listened with growing concern as I explained what I had just heard.

“A person in the lane?” Jacob repeated. “I don’t like this. This doesn’t feel right at all.”

I took a quick survey of the passengers. No one seemed to be paying much mind to the interruption, at least not at first. A second ping of the intercom signaled another update – this time I caught even less of the hurried explanation. But the words I did catch were enough: Suspect, police, guard the exits. He kept saying that last one, to watch the exits. Did I really trust these passengers, people I hadn’t exchanged a word with, to keep us safe from whoever was inside the railway?

That’s when I heard the singing. It began at the front of the train, growing nearer and nearer to the back where we were held. An unseen man sang an eerie hymn, steeped in sorrow and retribution. He was halfway through the carts now. No one was moving. Jacob turned his eyes toward me, barely daring to whisper, Is that French? I gave my head the smallest of shakes. No, there was no French in that voice. Its syllables were chillingly similar to Arabic.

My blood was cold. My mind frozen. We were close to a door, but I had no idea how we would escape. The mother and her child sat quietly in the back, marking the undeniable end of the singer’s path. Soon, he would be in front of us. With a hard swallow, I turned my eyes toward the front of the train, bracing myself for what could be the last breath I ever took.

The infamous black terrorist’s robe was burned so sharply in my mind, it took a moment for me to realize what this man really was. As I took in his Vietnamese visage, his simple poor man’s clothes, and his small box soliciting a euro for his song, my body exhaled with relief. This wasn’t an assailant, it was one of Paris’s many subway performers using the stalled train as a chance to sing for his supper. Jacob and I burst into a fit of nervous laughter once we realized we both were under the same impression of impending doom. Shortly thereafter, a final announcement came through declaring the clearing of the lane and thanking us for our patience. The train began to move again, and we quickly exited at the next stop to spend the rest of the day basking in the grandeur of Louis XIV’s iconic residence.

The gardens were laced with manicured hedges, ancient stone paths and a citrus haze from the potted lemon trees on the lower level. Though the anxiety of the morning was still with us, I couldn’t think of a better way to forget than walking through the serene halls of history in this most magnificent ode to the glory of France.

 

Stay tuned for Day 6 of Peaks of Paris…

Peaks of Paris: Day 4

1:45pm – I awoke to a hardened baguette wedge piercing the underside of my arm. What time is it? I thought to myself. Manon’s blackout shades made it hard to shake the half-conscious stupor. As I climbed out of the floor-level bed, I heard a muffled Oouf! come from underneath me.

“Good morning!” Alberto said cheerfully. He and Victoria were cocooned in a quilt on the living room floor. We said a final farewell to our Italian comrades and started toward the shower to ward off our growing guele de bois (ahem, hangovers). Still fatigued from the night that had just ended that same morning, we resolved to spend what remained of the day relaxing near the Eiffel Tower.

Rising from the metro tunnel, we were drawn into an adjacent bakery by the tantalizing smell of fresh-baked bread and croque monsieurs.

The French are quick to give you their opinion on food. Jacob discovered this when he asked me to order a Tropicana orange juice to accompany his toasted sandwich.

“No, no, zhis is better!” the bakery owner insisted, refusing my request for canned juice and shoving a freshly-filled glass bottle into my hand with delight.

We made our way to the line for the Tower, crossing underneath where a slew of peddlers gathered vying for our attention. Thinking myself safe, I walked up to a food cart to order an espresso. I was waiting my turn, when suddenly I felt something land on my head. I instinctively reared back, wildly searching to find the offending creature. Instead of a pigeon, I found a plastic drone hovering above me. A few feet away, a peddler was cackling in our direction, waving to us with his remote control. His technique was so clever, I bought one of his miniature Eiffel statues just for giving me a laugh.

We boarded the platform-sized elevator and watched the world grow smaller as we were whisked to the top of the monument. From high up, the buildings of Paris melted into a pleasing horizon punctuated by a small cluster of skyscrapers, looking indecorously modern in the centuries-old skyline.

italien cropped.pngThat evening, we agreed on an Italian restaurant for dinner. The food was superb, but we fell victim to an unsavory glare after refusing to order wine. Apparently, sticking with water is a European faux pas.

We ended the night back at the Tower with champagne bought from one of the many booze peddlers. Jacob was pleased with himself for haggling the price down to 6 euros – a steep discount from the original 25. We looked over the photos we had taken earlier at the government plaza across from the tower, trying to capture the twinkling of the tower’s light show in the background.

We sipped our prize straight from the bottle, surrounded by blanket-loungers doing just the same, enjoying the scene and each other’s company.tour eiffel

But the bliss and simplicity of that serene evening would soon be a distant memory. We basked in our naivety, not knowing the terror that awaited us the next day…

 

Stay tuned for Day 5 of Peaks of Paris…

 

A Simple Salute

Shots fired. Life lost. It’s terror again. First it was France. Her history ingrained in me. The language that saturated me. The people who connected to me. That was the first time it hit. I felt helpless. I wanted to do so much, but could really do so little. Why do I sit back and observe? There must be something, anything. But if answers were there, I couldn’t find them.

The second time, it came home. My peers had been attacked, persecuted for living their lives as I do every day. I wondered how many times I had been in one of those bars. Memories flashed of happy nights, joyous nights, spent dancing with friends in a place where no one was afraid to be themselves. We all shared a bond those nights, even with those we’d never met. Because we all knew what it was like to not be yourself. We’re lucky to live in the time we do, free to marry whomever we love. But the shadows are still there. The stares, the unspoken rules, the cached expectations. We live with them, and many of us accept them. Life is easier that way.

As we grieve, let us not lose sight of what we’re due. Simple things: respect, safety, equality. These are things hate wants to tear from us. But so long as we stand with each other, it will be the one who hides in the end.

 

 

 

 

 

Peaks of Paris: Day 3

Monday morning, we stepped out of the metro at the decorative platform of the Louvre museum. And after hearing pickpocket warnings in five different languages, we were sure to keep our wallets tight. As we approached the queue, we were greeted by the legendary upside down glass pyramid.

Excusez-moi, est-ce que c’est le queue pour le Louvre?” I asked a middle-aged couple in front of us.

I was surprised that their only response was a blank nod before turning back around. My confusion was made clear a few moments later when we overheard them speaking in Mid-Western American English.

Once inside, we were overwhelmed. We made our way through prehistoric pottery collections, hieroglyphic tablets, and colossal monuments to forgotten gods.

“We’ve got to see the Mona Lisa while we’re here,” Jacob insisted.

Wmonae made our way to the Italian art wing, and as the air thickened with the heat of hundreds of tourists, so did the stench. By the time we reached da Vinci’s chef d’oeuvre, we had been assaulted by selfie sticks and grumbled at in five languages simultaneously. The crowd was thick, but it was worth it to see the timeless masterpiece.

After a bought of espresso-induced crowd anxiety, we decided it was time to leave.

“I think we both could use a drink after that,” Jacob said.

Agreeing, I directed us toward the adjacent town square. We wandered into El Tonel, a deserted bar with a welcoming barmaid. We ordered a round of Stellas and chatted with the bartender. I got to practice my French, and she got to convince us to order a round of tequila shots. To our delight, she soon brought over a mysteriously delicious square of cheese and hash browns.

“It’s called la tortilla” she explained.

“This is a far cry from the tortillas we have at home,” I said to Jacob, laughing.

We left El Tonel and our precious tortilla in search of Le Marais again. Remembering the lively district from yesterday, we boarded the metro – Marais or bust. We settled on the Gossip Café, mostly because of le happy hour advertised on its patio. We took our seats outside, and just as we were deciding what to order, it began to sprinkle. As destiny would have it, we were forced to move one row over, right beside a blond guy and girl.

Bonsoir,” I said.

They repeated the pleasantry back. As we were ordering, I was attempting to explain in French that we could only have white tequila in our drinks, as Jacob is allergic to the gold variety. Apparently, tequila colors don’t translate perfectly, so we were having some difficulties.

Thankfully, our new neighbors stepped in and helped bridge the communication gap. They introduced themselves in English as Veronica and Alberto. They two were here on vacation from Italy.

We spent the rest of our visit at the café conversing with our new Italian acquaintances, italianswho proved to be both interesting and hilarious.

“We must hang out again later tonight. You can meet our friend who lives here,” Alberto insisted.

We happily obliged and swapped numbers. Alberto and Veronica left for dinner, and Jacob and I opted for a change of scenery a few bars down. This time, we found ourselves at Style Café. After a final round and a chat with the barman about where to go out on a Monday evening, we headed home to change and have a quick dinner.

We stopped by the Carrefour, a small market near our apartment, to pick up dinner, along with some wine and cheese. After eating and relaxing, we realized we were quite fatigued. It was 11pm, and Alberto was texting us eager for us to join them at a new bar. Still seated on the bed, Jacob and I were on the brink of turning in for the night, when finally I had a flash of resolve:

“Let’s go,” I said. “You’re only in Paris once – YOPO!”

Jacob agreed, so within half an hour we were back in Le Marais. We called Alberto, who guided us to the new watering hole. Once there, we found a lively crowd, a dance floor, and Stella by the pitcher.
bar sceneryWe made friends with a few local Parisians, a band of boys from Kentucky, and a squad of Canadian girls who were enthralled to meet a couple from their bordering nation. Sadly, this Parisian bar closed even earlier than the ones back home. So, as the bouncer expelled us we slithered back to Style.

We must have been pretty loud when our group of four arrived at the café, as we earned a disdainful remark from one of its patrons.

“Sorry,” I explained in French. “People always say we’re too loud. It’s just who we are!”

Unable to resist our joie de vivre, the complainer and his accomplice joined us. They introduced themselves as Karim and Sébastien and turned out to be wonderful company for the night.

As the night burned on, the bartender eventually forced us to bring the party inside since we couldn’t comply with his requests to quiet down. After a few drinks, I was less and less willing to speak in my native tongue.

Je parle pas anglais,” I said anytime someone would switch to English on me.

I was getting quite a kick out of blabbering in another language and actually being understood for once.

Around 3:30am, our final bar shut its doors. A wave of terror ran through me as I realized that the metro, our only ride, stopped running at 1am. But Veronica quickly informed me that there was a night shuttle a few blocks down.

“We can’t have our drinks in the street, can we?” Jacob asked.everyone

“Of course we can, it’s a free country!” Alberto replied gleefully.

Making our way over to the Hotel de Ville to board the shuttle, we invited our new friends
back to our apartment for an after party. Karim decided to leave the bus once Alberto fell on a passenger, deciding it was better to sleep this one off. Once inside the building, the five of us attempted to mount six flights of stairs without making too much noise.

“Cheese and wine, anyone?” Jacob asked.

“This is so French” Veronica laughed as we devoured the slices of Swiss and popped the Chardonnay corks. We continued to talk, laugh and dance until 5:45am, just as the sun was beginning to rise over the rooftops across from us. At some point during the after-soirée, I realized I had forgotten to speak a lick of English over the course of the past two hours. Luckily, Jacob was a good sport about it and I had the time of my life, finally getting to practice with true natives.

As the night came to a close, I sat with Veronica by the window as she smoked handmade cigarettes, taking in the view of the ornate European skyline on this very Parisian night.

 

Stay tuned for Day 4 of Peaks of Paris!

 

Peaks of Paris: Day 2

10:30am – As the bright Paris sunshine poured through the window situated just above the bed, I awoke to unusually stuffy conditions. Crawling over Jacob’s still sleeping body and tripping over the entangled voltage converter, I went to search for the thermostat. After 15 minutes of checking every crevice and making sufficient noise to awaken Jacob, I realized that air conditioning isn’t par for the course in France. Fortunately, it’s cooler in northern France than in Tuscaloosa, so I pushed open the two windows and let the cool city breeze wander in.

“Let’s get ready!” I said to Jacob, not wanting to waste a second of our first full day.

The days stretch on unfathomably long in Paris. At home, the sun has fallen into the horizon by 8pm, but here, it’s blaringly bright until after the hour reads double digits. The combination of extended daylight and lingering jetlag made it difficult to fall sleep on our first night, so we were anxious to start exploring after resting longer than we had intended.

metro

After donning the European couture we had bought back in the States, we boarded the metro heading toward the 4th arrondissement. Just as the alarm began to sound signaling the closing of the train doors, we saw a lady leap toward the metro. The buzz seemed to grow louder, more urgent. The doors were racing to a close with no sign of stopping. With less than a foot of distance between the sealing doors and her head, which was in the center of their path, the lady pulled out at the last second and the panels slammed violently shut. Seeing that she was safe, Jacob and I burst into a fit of post-shock laughter over the wildly dramatic near-disaster. We quickly realized from the disdainful stares we garnered that no one else had taken much note of the event.

Once the train got rolling, a simply-dressed beggar began wandering the hall of the carts.

Un euro pour ma peineee” she sang, which translates to “A euro for my painnn.”

“Clever marketing,” I remarked to Jacob. “If you’re going to ask for money, might as well sing it.”

Impressed by her tactic – or maybe it was just to buy a pause in the melody-less song – we deposited a euro coin into her cup.

After climbing out of the metro tunnel, we found a local sandwich shop to grab a quick lunch. The sandwiches in France are served on a large baguette – perfectly toasted, yet magically moist on the inside. The top-notch cheese is more than just a cliché, too.

IMG_3281As part of the lunch combo, we could get a café after our meal. Knowing that this meant “coffee,” we promptly ordered two to help shake off the last dregs of jetlag. What arrived wasn’t a typical American cup of Joe. The tiny mugs were actually espresso shots, complete with two sugar cubes.

“They’re really good,” Jacob observed. “I almost want to order another one.”

We soon made our way to our destination, the Centre Pompidou – a cultural arts center that houses a library, research labs, and most importantly, a modern art museum.

Un billet pour l’exposition, s’il vous plaît,” I said to the lady at the ticket booth.

“Are you studying here in Paris? You speak very good French!” she commended in French.

Feeling quite relieved and satisfied that my four years of study had paid off, I took my ticket and found Jacob so we could enter the Paul Klee exposition.

IMG_3283
Centre Pompidou

After browsing intricate pencil sketches, paintings, and manuscripts, I noticed a pale look in Jacob’s face.

“Are you feeling all right?” I asked.

“Not really,” he replied. “My leg won’t stop shaking. I’m not sure what’s wrong. I just need some fresh air.”

We exited the exposition and found a mezzanine café in the main lobby where we could sit for a moment and drink our Evian waters.

“I think that espresso shot really did me in,” Jacob said.

“You know, I’ve been feeling panicky myself,” I replied. “I guess the French like their coffee strong, too.”

We decided to head out after that to stave off any further espresso attacks. Nearby, we found the Hôtel de Ville, several churches (including Notre-Dame), and a beautiful bridge overlooking the Seine river. We were ready for dinner after our exploration, so we wandered into a nearby district we later discovered as Le Marais. Overflowing with cafés, bars, and brasseries, this lively shopping and food district was worth noting for tomorrow’s visit.

We headed home after dinner to rest up for Monday. But little did we know it would be our wildest day yet.

 

Stay tuned for day 3 of Peaks of Paris!

Peaks of Paris: Day 1

Friday morning, 7am – Taylor Swift’s New Romantics drifted into my slumbering ears. My first instinct was to silence the alarm, but then I remembered: today, we’re going to Paris.

After hastily throwing together my remaining luggage, making sure the steam iron was shut off, and scooping up the cat to take to my mom’s, I jumped in the car to pick up Jacob, albeit a little later than scheduled.

“You’re not going to be so calm once you miss your flight!” insisted my mother as we sped down Interstate 459.

I really wasn’t worried about the time. After all, it’s just Birmingham. After checking our luggage and getting our boarding passes, our goodbyes were interrupted by a strangely Morgan Freeman-esque unclaimed baggage announcement.

Finally, just as I was finishing the last morsel of my $9 croissant, the gates opened to board our mosquito-sized plane to Philadelphia.

After a layover in Philly, it was time to board the Airbus. Along with baby cheese wedges, an assortment of films and a rather well-made polyester blanket, the flight also included complementary wine. We of course took advantage of a few glasses’ worth before drifting into a delicious slumber over the Atlantic.

At 8am on Saturday, we arrived at Charles-de-Gaulle airport, just outside of Paris, France. We had booked an apartment in the 11th arrondissement on Boulevard Voltaire. I texted Manon (our hostess) to let her know we would be arriving shortly, not thinking much of it.

After working our way through customs and sneaking into a bathroom you’re supposed to pay €.79 to use, we emerged from the metro tunnel at 145 Boulevard Voltaire. It was a few minutes after 10am, and Camille – the girl Manon sent to deliver us the keys – was nowhere in sight. Feeling sufficiently awkward loitering in front of a residential apartment gate, we spotted a bench across the way and rolled our luggage over to wait for the mysterious Camille.

An hour passed, and still nothing. I put down my iPhone after the twentieth call to Manon, and stared, defeated, at the ornate walls of the apartment that was almost ours. To the right, we noticed a couple that had been enjoying a Saturday lunch and several drinks all during our roadside internment.

“I wonder if that couple over there has noticed us stranded here with all of our luggage,” I remarked to Jacob.

“They’ve been pointing and laughing for the past 15 minutes,” he replied dryly.

Disappointed and betrayed by our first hour in the city of love, we decided to search online for alternate lodging. Just as I was about to book a spot in one of Paris’s few remaining rooms – a terrifying looking “hostel” – my phone vibrated.

“Camille was supposed to be there at 10, I’m not sure what happened. I’m sorry,” was all that the text from Manon said.

After half an hour and another close encounter with the hostel, Camille called.

“I lost my keys last night, I be there in 15 minutes, je suis très désolée!” Camille promised.

An hour and fifteen minutes later, just as the couple from the café was inviting us to join them for a drink, we spot a frantic hand on the other side of the street. Finally – Camille.

After a hurried apology in broken English, our trio ascended to the sixième étage where the apartment was located. Camille left, and Jacob and I laid down for a well-deserved nap.

The check-in fiasco had left us rather famished, so upon waking we wandered into a roadside café a block away from the apartment.

Juste deux…” I said to the waiter/owner/cook, realizing that I never learned how to request table seating in class.

The owner repeated the phrase back, confused, then thankfully switched over to English. We soon learned, however, that speaking in only English came with its own complications.

“Do you have any chicken dishes?” I asked, unable to decipher the menu completely. We should have studied less Voltaire and more food in class, I thought to myself.

After a confusing exchange of dish descriptions, our stomachs won and Jacob and I settled on two cheeseburgers.

“We’ll be authentic tomorrow,” Jacob and I promised one another.

Little did we know we were in for a surprise for that meal, too. When the restaurateur emerged from the kitchen, we tried to disguise our shock as he presented us with two chicken-cheeseburgers, hold the beef.

“I guess all the chicken talk confused him,” I said to Jacob.

Afterward, we hopped on the metro to stroll the Champs-Élysées. About 10 minutes into our walk, Jacob spotted a tempting red beast on the corner ahead.

“That’s a Ferrari – no, two Ferraris!” Jacob exclaimed.

We meandered over to investigate, and a man wearing a #DriveMe shirt quickly approached. With very minimal convincing, Jacob and I were signing the waiver to drive a Ferrari on a tour de Paris. I took my post in the back seat, ready for Snapchat duty.

“Make sure you story this,” #DriveMe said. “One thousand screenshots minimum!”

After several heart palpitations for me and the drive of a lifetime for Jacob, we were parked neatly back on the Champs-Élysées. To finish off the night, we made our way to the Arc de Triomphe, then had a glass of vin rouge at a café nearby.

The hostess, an older, mostly likely intoxicated French lady, was all too eager to bring us a paper map of the city (“iPhone map no good,” she warned) and take several glamour shots of us, leaving no angle untried:

arc collage

 

Finally, we made our way back to Boulevard Voltaire to retire for the night and wait for what Sunday in Paris had in store.

 

Stay tuned for day 2 of Peaks of Paris!