Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Sights to See and Tours to Take

Oh my goodness I want to go to Paris.

Seriously.  I have always had dreams about going back, but the last few nights, I have actually had repeated dreams where I went back for just one day, or 6 hours, and I was sitting in a train station deciding how to spend my time the very best way possible.  And all I could think was "I have to get to a pastry shop."

And I know these are just dreams because if I were awake I would be able to access my List.  That's right, I have a List.

The List is of the things I would do in Paris, in order of priority.  And my List might not be your List, but I have probably put more thought into my List than most people do, so take what you can from it.

Priority #1 (this one is purely mine, and no one else is under any obligation to repeat it.)
Give away a Book of Mormon on the train.
I know, its the old missionary thing.  And when I went back to Paris after my mission, I did it at the request of one of my traveling buddies who had brought along a Book just for that purpose.  And it was a beautiful experience.  I'm not saying I'm going back to re-live the mission or try and pretend I'm still wearing that beautiful black nametag.  But its a perfect way to remember why I love the city and the people, and to be grateful for the experiences I had there.

Priority #2
Take the Night Bike Tour
I have never done this, but I have heard that it is the best way to see the city.  There is a company that offers bike tours of the city. You hit the major sites and enjoy the city from above ground rather than taking the trains underground.  And my favorite parts of the city are the parts in between all the famous sites.  Paris has a rhythm and a life to it that is so beautiful.  As a missionary, a member once took us on a night tour of the city in her car, and it was the only time I got to see the City of Lights when it was lit.  So I dream of returning to take the Night Bike Tour.  Incidentally, the rumor is that the best tour company for this is the one that does Priority #3 in the middle of their night bike tour. (Bikes are provided)

Priority #3
The Bateau Mouche
Its a boat tour of the city.  You see all the major sites, including the view of the mini Statue of Liberty in front if the Eiffel Tower.  You see Notre Dame, the Concierge, the architecture, all the good stuff, in about an hour. I was hesitant about taking this tour as a missionary, because I figured a boat tour was a big waste of time, but the elders insisted, and it still stands out as one of my favorite Paris experiences.  Grab a jambon-fromage baguette and sit on the top level of the boat and watch Paris go by.  Its beautiful.

Priority #4
The Musee D'orsay
You've heard of the Louvre.  You can name one (maybe two) things that are there.  The Mona Lisa.  The Winged Victory.  The Winged Victory is better than the Mona Lisa.  The print of the Mona Lisa that your fifth grade teacher showed you is probably bigger than the actual painting, which is crowded by tourists and generally boring.  Seriously, you've seen it before.  The real experience everyone should have is to see the impressionists.  Which is why the Musee D'orsay is what I recommend.  You know how starry nights is pretty and all?  In real life, when you can see the textures and colors, it feels like the whole sky is moving.  That painting is poetry in motion.  And Renoir's shadows and Seraut's pointilism are phenomenal in a way that no print can capture.  And Degas. Sigh.
Beyond artistic considerations, there a practical reasons to choose D'orsay.  It's less crowded, cheaper, and if you are on a limited schedule, get the discounted rates for the last hour of the day.  You can actually see a lot there in one hour.  At the Louvre, it will take you an hour to figure out the map, wandering past thousands of giant realist paintings of religious scenes that you don't recognize.  An hour at D'orsay an you will have seen all of the artists I mentioned above, and you will have seen some of their most famous works.

Priority # 5
The Catacombs
I know it sounds grim, but its really quite amazing.  Paris is built on layers of swiss cheese.  Under the city there are metros, under the metros there are catacombs, and under the catacombs there are natural reservoirs of water (like on Phantom of the Opera).  Yes, you are walking through dark underground tunnels filled with dead people.  And all I really have to say about that is go, look around, and imagine how crowded that place will be at the resurrection.

Priority #6
The Opera Garnier.
I wish this was farther up on my list, because its my favorite place in the city.  But its not purely because the other things are either things I haven't done or they are more efficient tours.  But the Opera Garnier is a museum in and of itself.  If you go last minute, you can get cheap tickets (student or tickets others have returned) and sit in a box and watch an opera at the famed house. Right now, they happen to be doing Wagner, Rheingold.  But even if you cant go for a performance, go for the tour.  And bring me a souvenir.  The only thing I can compare to that tour is the library of congress in DC.  Its moving just to be in the middle of that much beauty. I love this place.  Love it.  Love it.

Priority #7
Climb the Arc de Triomph.
If you want a view of the city, this is the view to get.   I still have never been to the top of the Eiffel Tower because guess what, from the top of the Eiffel Tower, you can't see the Eiffel Tower.  From the top the Arc you can see the Eiffel Tower, Sacre Couer, Notre Dame, and most fascinating of all, the traffic on the roundabout.  Statistically there is an accident every 5 minutes.  And I think the stats are a little thin.  The cars are going every which way and its mesmerizing.  In fact, what I really recommend is that you start there, take the tour and go to the top, then finish off by walking the length of the Champs Elysees.  And bring money.  This is the touristy shopping fun.

Priority #8
Find a Market
Go to the Latin Quarter or the area around Montparnasse and visit an open air market.  This is the non-touristy shopping experience.  The rotisserie chicken sold off the back of the trucks in these is the second best thing you will ever eat.  This first best thing is the baby potatoes they cook in the grease drippings from the rotisserie chicken.  And these markets aren't just for food.  Its like the Farmer's markets in the US.  Homemade crafts, clothes, jewelry, the fun never ends!
Whatever you do, if you are the artists square market by sacre coeur, do NOT let some "artist" bilk you out of money when they cut your silhouette or draw your picture without your permission.  They will have some story about feeding their family or expensive paper.  Wave your had at them, shake your finger at them as rudely as possible (seriously, its not actually rude to do this in France, so be aggressive) and walk away. If you like their work, offer them a couple dollars, but do not pay what people are asking.  Markets are for haggling.

Well now that I am thoroughly homesick, I shall leave you with that list.  I could come up with more, if I knew I had a few weeks, or I knew what season I was going to be there again.  At Christmas there are entire market villages set up in city squares and in the winter there is ice skating at the hotel de ville.  In the Spring and summer, the parks are the perfect place to sit with an ice cream and push the little boats around the ponds and fountains.  I'm going back. Someday. I can't think of anywhere I would rather be.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

For Laura (and anyone else lucky enough to visit Paris)

I am finding there is too much to say in one facebook post about what to see in Paris, so consider this the reference list. It could officially be entitled:

Nancy's Official Guide (and accompanying unofficial commentary) to Visiting the Greatest City in the World and Getting the most out of the experience so you can love it like me rather than just being able to say "yeah, I've been there" 

Or more succinctly:

Nancy's Paris Advice

I shall break this up into manageable categories. Installment one is on food.

I recommend that people do the fancy eat-in-a-French-restaurant experience just once.  It is marvelous.  and expensive.  And the server wil bilk you out of every penny they think you have.  Do not order a croque monsieur here.  That's just an expensive grilled cheese sandwich. Order something like boeuf bourgingon or some other expensive dish you recognize from watching Julia Child.  Go all out, run up a tab, and really experience it. Just once. Its fun if you go in knowing that it will cost and it is an experience. Chew slowly and really taste the food.  But under no circumstances should you ever return to the states and chew slowly or really taste a McDonalds hamburger.

The rest of your trip You can eat food that is as good as or even better than the fancy restaurant stuff if you follow one simple rule. Eat like a Parisian.  Find a Boulangerie (bakery) and grab a croissant for breakfast. Try the pain au chocolat (thats a croissant with chocolate running through it) or a croissant aux amandes (croissant with almond paste baked between layers....mmmm decadent) or, my personal favorite, a viennoise au chocolate. That's a soft milk-bread with chocolate chips in it.  actually, you could look for pain au lait (pan o lay) which is a sweet soft bread that will change your life.

For lunch you should find another bakery and ask for a baguette avec jambon et fromage. Its a ham and cheese sandwich. Don't gawk at the simplicity.  The French credit themselves with inventing food, and after eating there for a year and a half, I'm inclined to agree.  The more simple, the more you get to taste and cherish the flavors and appreciate what is really happening with your food.  (Think of it this way: Who are you more impressed with, the self-made simpleton who comes from nothing but succeeds at life or the silver spoon who makes it on daddy's dime and inherits the trust fund as well as the jobs?) Yeah, that's what I thought.  We love the underdog.  Think of basic ingredients and ideas as the underdog.  Anyone can make a perfect cut of steak taste decent, but there is art in making a ham and cheese sandwich that really shines.

While we are at it, little street corner cafes are the place to try that croque monsieur.  And don't underestimate the street vendors with crepes and waffles (gauffres).  get them filled with something delightful. You can't go wrong.

Now, Paris is a very ethnically diverse city, so I recommend a not-so-French meal once as well. (You know how ethnic food in America is really a blend of American and whatever other ethnicity?  Same thing in France.  Its that ethnicity mixed with French influence.) Look for middle eastern men selling something called a "Grec".  Its a hard French roll filled with lamb and onions and cucumber sauce then crammed with french fries and catchup.  You will feel your heart slowing down after about halfway through.  (Health advisory: Never, and I mean NEVER, eat more than one of these in a week. Never.)

Go to a grocery store.  Monoprix is the equivalent of Target and Carrefour is the equivalent of Walmart.  Otherwise, keep your eyes peeled for little corner markets.  In the grocery store, find the cheese.  Fromage. France has over 400 varieties.  I recommend: Caprice des Dieux, Tomme Noir, colommiers, and emmental. In the cheese section you are likely to see some sweet old french lady selecting cheese for her next meal.  The most authentic french adventure you can have will be to say to her "Bonjour, je suis american.  Je voudrais gouter un bon fromage.  Lequel fromage recommendez vous?"  (bo-joor. je soo-eez american. je voo-dray goo-tay uh bo fromage.  Le-Kel fromage recommend-ay voo?)  Congrats.  You just said "Hello, I am an american. I would like to taste a good cheese.  What cheese do you recommend?" in a lousy accent.  The old French lady will be delighted that you are trying to speak her language and that you are doing more than taking pictures of the eiffel tower, and making an effort to really experience France.  She will probably respond to you in English that is as bad as your French.  Here's the best kept secret about French people.  They will give you the shirt off their back if you show you are making an effort to appreciate the things they love.  She will probably give you two or three to try.  She will show you how to choose the best cheese, and she will probably recommend which wines and fruits to pair it with.

While you are at the store, pick up a few other things that look interesting.  Cookies (pims, with pear in them. Two words: culinary orgasm) or candies (even the cheapest chocolate will ruin hersheys for you), cereal (pleaase get chocopics and send me a box) and orangina or fruit juices (look for peche-framboise- peach raspberry).

next up: sights to see and tours to take.