Monday, November 1, 2010

Stranger in a Strange World: Rome and Paris

We departed from the Florence train station at 9 AM and took the slow train to Rome, arriving just after 1 PM. On the way, we mostly napped and stared out the window. However, we did see sheep and blindingly green grass, and so for a while, we entertained ourselves by trying to get a picture of the sheep without being blocked by trees, tunnels, or houses. There were several great opportunities, but we were always unprepared when those moments manifested themselves. So we arrived in Rome and noted all the Roman ruins that were scattered throughout the city, surrounded by the modern city that had simply built up around the ruins.

We tried desperately to find a ticket counter that sold bus tickets to the airport, but kept getting redirected to other ticket counters. We began to despair. Perhaps we would not actually leave Italy for Fall Break... but alas, we were finally sent outside and found out that the bus station was selling tickets. We were on our way. When we arrived at the airport, we had a moment of panic because Grace's bag didn't fit in the carry-on bag size restrictions and my bag was .4 kg too heavy. But by reorganizing and squishing, we managed to get through checkin without checking our bags. We got our tickets stamped and went through security. However, my ticked had been stamped at the bottom, instead of the top like it was "supposed to be," so they almost didn't let me through. But we figured it out and and got through to the gate, only to wait for 4 hours until it was time to board. Take off and landing went successfully. And so our adventure trekking through Europe began.

We landed and a fanfare of trumpets literally came on over the intercom and heralded us into France. We got off the plane and boarded a bus. The windows of the bus were fogged up and the bus was absolutely full, but we managed to find the last 5 seats on the bus, though we had to split up and sit separately. There was a young couple sitting in front of me that had decided to passionately and loudly shower their affection upon each other, to the point where even closing my eyes and trying to sleep was inefficient at blocking them out. There were also two Italians behind me who talked loudly the whole trip, and must have been inspired by the couple in front of me, because they started kissing as well by the end of the journey. I was so ready to get off that bus.

When we disembarked, we hailed a taxi and thankfully, Liz spoke enough French to communicate our destination. We were driven to the hostel and saw the Eiffel Tower lit up in the distance. After booking this particular hostel, well before break started, we heard that our hostel was the worst hostel is France, and so upon arrival, we braced ourselves for the worst. The host was American, but was incredibly rude and made checking in unnecessarily difficult for us. We were given our room key, which was welded to the end of a brass pipe, and we went to see how terrible our room was. We had to go outside into a courtyard and then through a utility closet to get to the back of the hostel and up a flight of rickety, multicolored stairs. Our room was okay upon first glance, but it was room 25, which was noted in the reviews to have bed bugs. So of course we had to get THIS room. We left our stuff there and went in search of food. The only thing open at that hour (quarter til midnight), was a small pizza and sandwich place. Not being particularly picky at that moment, we went in and ordered food.

Then we sought out Liz's hotel, because she was fortunate enough to meet her boyfriend that night and not have to endure the Three Ducks Hostel. However, we couldn't find the hotel and kept asking for directions. We were getting great directions from a certain street onwards, but we couldn't find that particular street, so the directions were useless to us. But finally, we discovered the street sign tucked away behind an awning and then easily found the hotel. Liz had an awkward reunion with her boyfriend, Ryan, as the rest of us stood around and tried to be less intrusive. We said our goodnights and left Liz at the hotel. We arrived back at Three Ducks and prepared for the night. We walked into our room and saw a bag on one of the previously empty beds. It looked like we weren't going to have the room to ourselves. We were in our beds, discussing the day and our plans for the next one, when a guy walked in. We said hi and watched as he opened the suitcase that had been left on the bed. He started pulling clothes out and it was clear that this suitcase belonged to him. He would be our roommate for the night.

We exchanged glances of unease (what else could possibly be thrown at us that night?), but then the guy looked up and introduced himself. Soon we were laughing and having a great conversation with him. He was studying in Holland, but had lived in France for four years, so he gave us some recommendations for places to go. We didn't make it to any of his recommendations, but we got good reviews from other people when asked about it, so here are his suggestions, should you ever find yourself in Paris, looking for something to do:

Chez Papa on Rue LaFayette or Rue Gassendi. It has an expansive selection and all the items come in large portions. It is not touristy at all and has a great casual atmosphere.
Le Refuge des Fondues in Montmartre. This is a cool fondue restaurant that you certainly visit for the experience. There is a flat rate of 17€, and you get appetizers, cheese or meat fondue, and a dessert. But the real unique aspect of this restaurant is the wine. It's served to you in bottles - baby bottles, that is. Certainly not something you'll experience at any other restaurant, so it's worth a try (and you get to keep your bottle!)
Gibus right off of the Republique, where L'Arc de Triomphe stands. If you like Hip Hop, this is the club to visit. A very industrial basement set-up, but the best hip hop in Paris. This is also where you'll meet most of the black population, since on the streets, they are hard to find (although I'm not sure why this is the case).

I got very little sleep, because the people in the room next door decided to open doors and jump around all night, and then they left at 6 in the morning, causing all sorts of ruckus again. Our male roommate's phone went off at 3:30, and an unidentified person kept coming into our room every half hour to use our sink. There were also motorists who drove under our window every five minutes, blaring French rock music. And of course, that day, we went on our Paris whirlwind tour. We went downstairs and consumed a delicious typical French breakfast (croissants and tartine (small baguettes) with strawberry or apricot preserves, coffee, tea, and hot chocolate). Then we met up with Liz and Ryan. We walked to the Metro and figured out tickets and how to navigate the Metro lines. The metro was pretty cool, and after a few rides, we had the system figured out.

Our first tourist destination was the Louvre. It was amazing to approach for the first time, because it was such a massive building. And the glass pyramids were exciting to see in person. But even inside the gallery, the art and architecture were amazing. We got in for free, because we were students in the EU! There was so much art to see, and we could only see a portion of it, so we picked the Egyptian art (I stopped at a temporary modern art exhibit on the way there), statues (they were cool, but I'm not terribly moved by 3D art), and then a sampling of the paintings they had on display. Of course, we saw the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa, among many other famous artists and works. We also found the Crown Jewels room, and I got to see all the shinys.

I insisted that I wasn't going to leave the Louvre until I saw every print on display. I should have wished a little more carefully. There were several rooms of prints marked on the map, and I dragged my party to each of the rooms. At the first exhibit, the door was walled off and closed, with a sign saying the room was being prepared for the next exhibition, opening November 11. I was disappointed, but undeterred. We trekked to the next print room. This door was locked, with the same sign plastered to the door. And again, at the next location. I was rapidly running out of print exhibit options, and equally as fast, losing hope. The next rooms were devoid of any art, with the notorious sign hovering there, mocking me. We wandered around, peering dejectedly (or at least, I was dejected) into empty rooms of prints, until only one room remained.

I ran to the room alone, leaving the others in a room of Lorrain and Poussin. I approached the room cautiously, not expecting much, and behold! The room was open AND there was art inside. I rushed in, my joy unparalleled, ready to see even just one print. The room was small, so it didn't take long to take in the view: 5 charcoal drawings and how many prints? ZERO. Not one print on display in the entire Louvre. One of the most famous museums in the world had quickly worked its way to the top of my least favorite museums ever. The museum had a lot of great art, but this personal affront was too much to bear.

So to console myself (and because I had consumed three whole sugar cubes at breakfast), I rode all the roller coasters in the museum and ran around the sculpture museum. That'll show 'em.

As we left, I was still on my sugar high, and Emily noticed that this woman had a lot of shed hair stuck to the back of her jacket. Without thinking, I pulled the hair off, but for some reason, I couldn't think of what to do with it. Instead of dropping it to the ground like a sane person, I held onto it tenaciously and looked helplessly at my friends. They froze, unwilling to believe that I was not able to figure out the next step on my own. I did come to a conclusion, however. The hair was to be discarded in some way, and you discard things in a trash can. We were in the middle of the Louvre, though, so there were no trash cans readily available, thus I was at a loss of what to do. Finally, Emily convinced me to drop it on the ground, despite my vehement protests. They still bring up this little "incident" to this day.

My group escorted me out of the Louvre and we went to Notre Dame. We were let in, which was surprising, because Mass was in session. But the cathedral was gorgeous.

We found a place nearby to stop for lunch, and I had the best French onion soup. It was not salty at all, but a flavor explosion, and there was bread soaked in the soup that was delicious.

After lunch, we made our way to the catacombs and stood in a long line. We had arrived at 3:00, and last entry was at 4:00. The security guards approached us, at the end of the line, and spoke to us in French. With the help of the people in front of us, Liz's limited French, and some guessing, we figured out that they were telling us that we probably wouldn't make it into the catacombs that day, since the line was really long. We began to pray and dance for rain, hoping the people in front of us would decide to leave, and we also began crafting reasons for them to let us in, should we be denied access at the entrance. Emily decided that she would claim her grandmother was down there and we practiced fake crying. As we inched closer, people indeed began leaving and the rain came in a miserable drizzle. We were so close to the front of the line, finally, and our watches were getting closer to 4:00. The final group was let in, and we were the very last people of the very last group of the day to be admitted! We bought our tickets at 4:02. The catacombs were so awesome. A seven-year-old British girl designated herself to be my group's tour guide, and took great pleasure in making fun of Grace, who was very nervous the entire time we were down there. There were cave carvings and the walls were lined with countless bones. These bones were from the late 18th century Parisians, because there was not enough room in the cemeteries for the dead. The bones, after the flesh was removed with lime, would be sent into the abandoned stone quarries beneath the city and the monks would arrange them to create a sort of mausoleum. The sections we could explore were mostly femurs and skulls. These catacombs were featured in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Umberto Eco's Focault's Pendulum, among others.

After exploring, we made our way to the Latin District, although we weren't sure what we were supposed to see, because it was a Sunday, and there was not much activity there at all. On our way, we stopped by a Starbucks for Veronika's sake, although a venti was almost 5€, and we did not want to spend that much at all. So we got crepes from a street vendor, and they were so delicious. We also stopped by the Luxembourg gardens, which were beautiful, especially since we got there just at sunset. There was a pond and tiny chapel dedicated to Caterina de Medici, an Italian from the Medici family, the main ruling family in Florence during the Renaissance. The dedication is due to her marriage to the king of France (Henry II), but I thought it was still ironic to see an Italian being honored in France, since the French and Italians do not think fondly of each other.

In the Latin district, we stopped for dinner, and I had a croque monsieur, which was essentially a panini with a French name. Still, it was delicious. Italians are bitter about French cooking, because they maintain that once Caterina moved to France, the French stole all the Italian cooking. Omlettes, crepes, Nutella (chocolate hazelnut spread), and sandwiches are actually documented to be eaten in Italy far prior to in France. While this may be the case, I think the French have much improved on the Italian recipes, and they have the right to claim these dishes as their national cuisine.

After dinner, we went to the Eiffel Tower. I didn't know that at night, it actually sparkles. As in, the lights blink and give the appearance of a shimmering Eiffel Tower. It was a wonderful view, but it was so cold that we didn't stay at the top for very long. It was quite an expensive journey to the top as well, but I think it was completely worth it. We got to see the whole city lit up.

We said goodbye to Liz and Ryan, who were going back to Florence in the morning, and then walked back to the hostel and spent some time at the bar that was attached to the hostel. I danced with a very enthusiastic guy. He was very jovial because it was his last night working there, and he was very drunk. I tried to start a game of cribbage with Emily, but that didn't work out so well, so we played BS with the whole table. The cardplaying didn't last too long because the others were too tired to truly engage. So we went upstairs and went to bed.

That night, we had obnoxious French boys in the next room who kept talking loudly and walking through our room. Even though we were planning on waking up at 8:30, I got up at 7 and got ready for the day, since clearly sleep wasn't going to be part of my night. I had breakfast and drank a gallon of hot chocolate to give myself the caffeine to last the day. I woke up my roommates and waited for them to get ready for the day. However, by the time they were ready, breakfast had been taken away. We tried to figure out our day. I really wanted to go to Versailles, but we were meeting Grace's friend Kylie, who was studying in Paris that semester, at noon, and we wouldn't have enough time to fully explore Versailles, to my chagrin. So to kill time until noon, we went to the Eiffel Tower park and took classic tourist photos with the Tower in the background.

We walked to the rendezvous point and Veronika and Emily split, leaving Grace and I to find Kylie. We realized after the other two left, that we didn't have their phone numbers, and once we found Kylie, we had to search for them. Finally we all met up and made our way to L'Arc de Triomphe. We climbed the 284 spiral stairs to the top and saw all of Paris by day. It was cool to see the city from L'Arc, because the main avenues radiate from that point, so it felt like we were at the center of Paris.

We climbed back down and watched a group of break dancers put on a show.

We stopped at a bakery for lunch and got Quiche Lorraine, which is egg quiche with ham and cheese. We also had beignets, which were filled with raspberry, apricot, or apple filling. We also walked down Champs-Élysées, the expensive shopping street, and purchased some macaroons, which are flavored cream sandwiched between two soft cookies of the same flavor. We had eight different flavors, and they were delicious.

Then we took the metro to Marais, which is the artistic district of Paris. Grace had discovered that Nicholas Flamel's house was there. She didn't realize that Flamel was more than just a Harry Potter character until this point. He was an alchemist, like in the book, who was allegedly successful in creating silver and gold, and the philosopher's stone. The house is the oldest stone house in Paris. We found the plaque, but it took us a while to find the actual house (a few meters down from the plaque).

We then went to the Centre Pompidou, which is the contemporary art museum in Marais. We saw a lot of interesting contemporary art, as well as famous pieces by artists like Chagall, Picasso, Kandinsky, Yves, Dali, Miro, and many others. I loved it.

Kylie left us after the museum, and we went to Montmartre to see the Moulin Rouge and Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart) Cathedral. After seeing the Moulin Rouge, however, we were so hungry that we stopped at a sushi restaurant and had really good sushi and kabobs.

Then we decided to go back to the hostel instead of making our way to the cathedral, because we had to get up early to get to the airport. We played some card games in the bar again. One of them was horse races, and instead of making it a drinking game, we decided that the winner would dictate a dare to the rest of the players. My "horse" Spades won, so I got the honor, but I never used my power. We ordered a taxi for the morning and went to bed. There was no one in our room, and I finally got some sleep, even though it was nearly 1 when we went to bed and we had to wake up at 5.

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