My overnight trip to one of the most romantic cities in the world wasn’t romantic at all and actually got off to a bad start. I was expecting not being able to sleep on the coach and didn’t grumble as I was tossing and turning in my seat which wasn’t anything like a comfy bed. But feeling really unwell is what I certainly didn’t see coming at all! What I was doing apart from trying to figure out what could have caused that, was indulging in self-pity contemplating how unlucky I was to have fallen ill on my way to the highlight of this trip. Will I be able to bounce back the moment I see the enchanting beauty of Paris or will this city give another romantic person the strength to soldier on? I would have felt devastated to become ill on any part of this trip of course but that was definitely the worst timing! Why should it happen NOW when I’m about to discover the city that has a special place in a lot of people’s hearts regardless of whether they have had the privilege of visiting it or not? This city features on a lot of people’s dreams and even those who don’t aspire to travel there must have a good reason to do so. No matter which group you are in, you certainly have a certain image of Paris which can be intrinsically romantic and sappy inspired by a plethora of books and films featuring long romantic walks, champagne, AMOUR… Or at the other end of spectrum, a casual image of the Eiffel Tower featured in advertisements, merchandises (mostly from China) can pretty much sum up Paris for some… I see the notion of Paris just as the notion of love… Some of us tend to romanticize it and others dismantle it as being overrated. Traditionally, Paris equals love and so you can’t just say you don’t care. Do you believe in Paris?
I was hoping I was because I expected my sickness to be gone and I wouldn’t mind it probably happening in a totally romantic way as we were getting closer and closer to Paris as the night wore on. Anyway, a couple of troubled thoughts and medications later, sleep (or rather delirium) took me in its sweet romantic embrace for a little bit and I did start feeling better from which as I later realized must have been a cold I got back in the rainy Moscow. Well, there never comes a time you’re totally ready for love to come your way but at that point I thought I was ready for Paris to give me a sweet embrace…
Eating in the city of love and romance started seeming rather costly as we popped in a shop somewhere a couple of hours’ drive outside it. The prices were way higher than back in Berlin and the shop assistant wasn’t even half as nice… Did I still believe in Paris? Well, I guess I did because I guess a part of believing in love is being able to accept it is not always what you picture it to be… To put the romance part aside for a bit, I would say my first impression of France wasn’t too positive. First, the prices, then the fields we were driving by didn’t seem as well-looked after as they did back in Poland… But that’s what you get when you travel around. You end up being more aware of contrasts as you keep traveling and you can go from feeling positive to disappointed and equally you can go just the other way around…
So we got some information from the tour guide and were given maps of the city just to find out that the hotel where we would be staying at for the next two days wasn’t even on the map! Magnifique! But well, do you really mind that as long as you are in the city of love? Well, we were yet to discover that… Probably an hour later, here we were, Bonjour, Paris! Well, I might seem to overuse this in my account of Paris but sorry Je ne parle pas français and sorry I had to Google how to say that! Why is that when you don’t speak a language, you always feel the urge to say something in it? So yes, Bonjour, Paris! is all I could say and that was all I had to say at that point as we got stuck in Paris traffic. Do you mind being stuck in traffic in the city of love? The answer should be yes just because it reminds you of cities which don’t hold the reputation of being romantic… So is Paris really overrated? Well, I guess that was too early to be answering that. Should we learn to ignore first snap impressions when it comes to Paris (love)? Amongst hectic traffic, we were able to take notice of a large building of the Stade de France (the national stadium) featuring the photos of some popular French football players and a bit later uphill I saw an image that matched the one that was on a chocolate bar I got in that pricey shop.
That was The Sacré-Cœur Basilica. That was my first wow-moment in Paris because I didn’t expect to catch a glimpse of this iconic sight from down the road and I wasn’t aware of the layout of the city at that point. Apart from that wow image I’d just experienced, at first glance Paris looked like just your average capital city. And deep down inside, I was waiting for a miracle to unravel because love and beauty are better savoured when unexpected.
As we went further into the city watching joggers and businessmen filling the streets, the coach driver asked us to close our eyes just after another crossroad. I knew what was coming and I wondered if my fellow travelers did as well. I was just about to see HER, the epitome of love and romance, the ultimate oasis of sentimental beauty, the pilgrimage of romantically inclined people from all over the world. Paris is HER and if you ever wonder if love has a material substance, in this place it does and it looks like the Eiffel Tower! You are experiencing that overwhelming feeling, butterflies in your stomach, lump in your throat as if you know you are just about to make an acquaintance with the love of your life. The only difference is that in everyday life we never know for sure when we do meet this special person or even if we do get this feeling, it is most likely our fantasy and illusion taking over and what we see is not this actual tangible person but what our imagination paints over them. For others this special someone takes a lifetime to find or alternatively, others choose to settle for what is a far cry from that beautiful work of art created by their imagination. What I was just about to see was the ultimate dream, the token of love and our search for it… I’m on the edge of my seat, on an emotional high, my heart is pounding, all set for the ecstasy of taking HER in. And here it was, larger than life! All the tourists erupted into an ecstatic and joyous applause! The love of your life has a way of keeping you anticipating… And now that was it!
What I was feeling at the moment wasn’t as beautiful as it pictured it to be. Waiting for love to come (whether you do nothing but secretly hoping it will find a way to you or you are desperate for it) seems much more romantic and inspiring than actually encountering it. The moment I was waiting to see it knowing it was just around the corner, halfway between the fantasy and reality is the moment I’ll treasure forever… As large as it was and as high as I felt, the actual image of it didn’t meet my expectations somehow. I just knew something wasn’t there… Are you never sure what you see is what you’ve been looking for or should you rather let your imagination do the job for you? I didn’t do that and instead texted Mum to say I’ve just seen the Eiffel Tower but when she asked me if I was impressed, I said I wasn’t… Is there something wrong with me or something wrong with that massive architectural structure dominating Paris’s skyline?
Now that we felt we were officially and emotionally in Paris, it was time to take a trip down the Seine. As we got off the coach and were making our way to where we would board our vessel, I kept sizing HER up and that involved me walking with my head turned to the opposite direction. I was waiting for the Tower to work its magic and felt as if I was in a dream and I held onto it, afraid to wake up and lose sight of it. It looked larger from this angle… There is a tower just outside my grandparents’ garden which is used for providing electricity and I remember growing up I used to call it the Eiffel Tower because to me it seemed to bear some resemblance to the original and as I was standing there taking it in, I remembered that. The real thing was much more spectacular of course and I was trying to figure out how to see love and romance beyond the magnifique architectural piece. I let myself off the hook because I realized I wasn’t at my best that day after a night of feeling unwell and gruesome reality seemed to have an edge over romantic dreams of mine…
We were waiting in line to get on board as I kept staring at the Eiffel Tower. If I was a man and it was a lady, I believe it would turn away… The Seine, what an iconic sight to start off with! I love it how almost every major city you visit is connected to a river which, I believe, is not just a practicality but is also inspiration for romantic musings of people visiting. It looked quite small but taking a boat ride along the river with its banks jammed with numerous sights was going to be a nice way to introduce us to Paris. That was more like a preview to what we were about to see in the next three days. After some misunderstanding with our tickets, we got on board and were taken pictures of straightaway. I can’t take a good picture and I dread to think what I looked like in that one and I certainly wasn’t keen on paying 10 Euros to get it! We were given headsets and our little voyage got underway! Our guide was an extremely slim lady of the oriental origin and seemed to speak a combination of languages. She gave us a multilingual welcome and it made me chuckle to hear her trying to say something in Russian! There was a brief commentary of the places we were seeing and I continued to size up the city because a river trip is not sufficient to feel really exposed to the sights, but it can do as a little teaser and quite a tantalizing experience. I believe we had a bit of Charles Aznavour playing in between as we were sailing under iconic extravagant bridges (Pont Neuf, Pont Alexandre III (the most impressive one!), Pont Saint-Michel and some others).
I don’t remember the exact order though but they were all beautiful and distinctly Parisian, not like those we saw just the previous day in Berlin. I was starting mellowing out after a rough night but was still incredulous of where I was at the moment. This is when I remember my sister asking “Can you believe you are in Paris?”. This is another thing I knew I would include in my description of the trip. Some things and moments are like grains of sand, they are so easy to lose in the avalanche of the ocean of your memory that you need to grab them before they drown deep down in your mind. I feel like committing them to paper is like saving them from drowning and never being recovered again… I would think my sister expected me to be on a kind of a romantic high because there is nowhere in the world that a romantic would feel at their romantic best but here… I imagined I would be as well but again things often turn out to be quite different from what you pictured them to be. At that point I was questioning my romantic disposition… Was I just a boring pragmatic creature? Was I romantic enough and was Paris romantic enough for me? I certainly had felt a lot more romantic before in places supposedly less romantic than the one I was in at the moment… Well, our perception of romance needs in-depth scientific research, I believe… Whatever I was feeling at the moment wasn’t surely love at first sight… Maybe it wasn’t just meant to be for me and Paris… Or would it blossom into something more in the end? It was a one-sided relationship with a large diverse city so it was up to me to decide where we would go… The Musée d’Orsay, Notre-Dame, Conciergerie… Now we feel we really ARE in Paris! And a few pictures of the Tower as we are sailing by of course. One instantly becomes a background picture in my phone. A very weird but such a modern way of connecting with any place… I was so gutted when a couple of months later, the memory card crashed and these pictures, along with many others, were gone… But no matter how advanced technologies are, the bottom line is that the memory card fitted into our brains and capable of arousing our minds and senses is the most reliable one because it is there for just as long as we are…
We got back on the coach for the next stop which was the Louvre. She was still standing there, erect and extravagant, a jolie Parisian lady making me feel as if she was Paris itself and I needed nothing more but see her standing here to physically feel where I was… At this point a new tour guide took over and he seemed much more knowledgeable, savvy and streetwise. After a bit of confusion and misunderstanding while boarding our Seine vessel, we were happy our tour guide was leaving us as her EU visa was expiring and we needed someone to make our Paris experience a really beautiful and amazing one and this new tour guide seemed like he could pull it off.
The Louvre was just a brief drive away and our coach parked on Rue de Rivoli, a street lined with souvenir shops and restaurants. We were just about to briefly immerse ourselves in one of the greatest art treasuries the world has to offer! Visiting museums can be really overwhelming, humbling and even tedious at times because in order to fully appreciate the scale and grandeur, you need to do a lot of research beforehand. Another thing which is crucial for an enjoyable museum experience is a lot of stamina and consistency walking along large, crowded and therefore stuffy spaces for hours on end trying to make sense of what you are exposed to. I think in a way visiting any sight with a tour guide can take away from the whole experience because getting lost and mingling with people in the crowd trying to get the directions is part of the beauty of traveling but… And there’s also a big BUT. You’ve got to have a lot of time on your hands to savour all the beauties of traveling but if it is an extensive tour of a big chunk of Europe and all you’ve got time for is to merely scratch the surface and decide if you ever want to be back and dive in deeper, a tour guide can be of huge assistance in helping you navigate art, history and whatever you’re exploring. And a tour guide can definitely make or break a trip. Our Louvre guide was Russian who looked like she’s been residing in Paris for quite a while and later we found out she actually graduated the famous La Sorbonne! I always find it immensely pleasurable to watch people and their ways while abroad. At the end of the day, it’s people not architecture and art that represent a hugely diverse face of a city… Watching my fellow countrymen abroad and speculating on how a European environment shaped them up is a massive cultural experience for me. You can try to imitate locals in many ways but what remains with you forever is your native language, it’s like a benchmark and is arguably a powerful tool in making us who we are. So our tour guide was very interesting to watch, especially that French side of her… Before our tour kicked off, we were given earphones and stayed for a bit in the hall to see the Inverted Pyramid that made me wish I had read Dan Brown before my trip to comprehend the enigma behind this structure. Seeing a sign which read “Paris” here was again bringing it home to me where I was. I’m pretty much confused if I have to put it down to my lack of sleep the night before or my poor knowledge of art (which I’m working on improving) but I can’t really go on and on about my visit to the Louvre because overall it was a very blurred experience and to me, as ignorant as it may sound, this whole unsurpassed collection came down to the lady with the most piercing, enigmatic eyes who is originally Italian but is now residing in Paris and technically, a Parisian lady who can well compete with the major lady, if not in size but in its splendour and artistic value. The Louvre itself is an enormous building which started as a fortress and then became a palace. We had only two hours to spend there and of course the museum of such a tremendous scale is not “doable” within such a space of time. The place was absolutely crowded and noisy and we literally had to follow our guide’s footsteps in order not to get lost.
As the whole Louvre visit was very chaotic and blurred, I’m struggling to piece together the list of the exhibits we did get to see. I clearly remember the first one being Sleeping Hermaphrodite and being strangely captivated by how the mattress this figure was lying on was sculpted because it looked so real… Another one was Aphrodite “Venus de Milo”, also Winged Victory of Samothrace, Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, Three Graces… Then followed painting galleries and all I remember doing was taking lots and lots of pictures. People tend to get overwhelmed and inconsistent on guided tours when there is a certain time limit and pressure of keeping up with the rest of the group… So there were a number of masterpieces I’m genuinely sorry I wasn’t able to appreciate. They featured a string of French kings, especially Louis XIV (whose palace, Versailles, we were scheduled to visit the next day) and of course, one of the hugest personalities in the French history, Napoleon… There was also a variety of precious stones, jewellery which any lady would be mesmerized by…You virtually want to take pictures of everything!
But there’s no doubt about what the highlight of an average Louvre visit is… Mona Lisa… You feel the excitement building up as you see the signs for her all over the museum. That should be the next most exciting anticipation after seeing the Eiffel Tower. We were eager to make an acquaintance with the lady herself but it would have been foolish to assume we would have a chance to have her to ourselves… The gallery where she is displayed is nowhere intimate and private, it is packed with people! If Mona Lisa could come alive in flesh and blood, I assume she would be feeling like a superstar mobbed by a starstruck crowd desperate for an autograph. But no one in the crowd would get one, all you end up wirh is a lingering, piercing look… It is like being in a concert in a large venue and whenever an artist looks somewhere your way and it seems they are making eye contact with someone, you think it’s you they are looking at and so do lots of other people next to you… She gives that tense look and seems to never look away and for a moment you might get the impression it’s only you and her in the room… You instinctively hold up your camera and tiptoe over the crowd to take a picture. I was using my camera and its battery was dead just as I was about to photograph Mona Lisa… Well, I had to grab my phone and take another picture, but the painting didn’t turn out well. Probably that was due to the lighting but in all of the pictures I’d taken Mona Lisa had some celestial “thing” over head as if mocking me for trying to get a shot. Well, unlike the Eiffel Tower that you can actually savour and grow to enjoy as the highlight of your Paris trip, seeing Mona Lisa over heads of hundreds of people is more like something you just tick off your bucket list. The painting is disappointingly small and in fact, you fail to see the art in one of the most celebrated paintings ever…You seemed to be worried about fighting your way through the crowd just to get a picture of what you’ve seen a million times just for that “been-there-done-that” feeling… For a lot of people I guess this celebrity painting would make for the final stop… So it did for us. All I know is that I owe the Louvre another visit because I feel ashamed of myself for missing out on its richness and splendour.
It was time for us to head to our hotel for the next three days which was somewhere in the outskirts of the city. We were driving through the streets and I was trying to pick up on the Paris vibe. I did pick up on the European vibe but I was still struggling for the Paris one. We made a quick stop at a perfume shop and buying some perfume to take back home is a must but we were visiting Fragonard Factory in Grasse a couple of days later so I thought I would wait to buy mine. It must have felt like paradise for a lady to be at a perfume shop in Paris but you’re really spoilt for choice! But here comes another but. Most of items were quite extravagantly priced and I wasn’t thinking straight after the overnight trip so I was just looking around. Prices in Paris especially on your first day here can you want to hold onto your cash rather than splurging on every single whim (a girl has many when she’s in Paris). Perfume shopping has a way of wearing you out because after smelling a couple of scents, you aren’t sensitive to any that follow… Especially in Paris, especially after a sleepless night being sick on the overnight trip…
Anyway, it was time to make a move to the hotel and we did get to see some more of Paris on the way. As we were driving by, we were shown the Pont de l’Alma road tunnel, the exact spot where Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in 1997 and I actually remember the day it happened. Seeing places like this make you feel connected with the recent history and stories you remember unraveling.
We were on our way for a bit and the streets were quite different and got less picturesque as we approached the hotel. What we saw looked like a residential area and in fact all the cities are composed of them and tourists don’t often get to see the real life going on beyond buzzing tourist hubs… Well, this was where we were staying and were instructed by our tour guide to stay away from late at night. If I was traveling to Paris on my own, I would never book a hotel in such a location! Our rooms were on the top floor and it was challenging to go up as French elevators turned out to be quite tricky. So we ended up walking the stairs all the way up with our suitcases! Romantic! Not! There was a young boy in our group and he was going up in front of us and I saw a piece of underwear slipping out of his suitcase onto the stairs which he didn’t care to pick up. Well, I can’t say why but the sight of this boy’s underwear lying around in between the stairs makes me laugh to this day. Russian tourists always leave their mark wherever they go! I don’t take pride in that, it’s just statement of the facts. We relaxed in our rooms for a bit and wanted to go out to do some food shopping as we had the rest of the afternoon to ourselves. I was feeling feverish and unwell again and hated that. The girls weren’t willing to go out that night and I was trying to assure them we shouldn’t stay at the hotel just because of me feeling unwell. I would hate to miss out because of my illness and thought some more medication would get me through. But they look exhausted as well, plus we had no idea how to navigate the city on our first day there. So we went out to the nearest shopping centre and the area did feel dodgy and scary with suspicious-looking people of different nations passing by. It felt as if it was a gangster movie setting. Romantic! Not! Unless we had had a gorgeous French gentleman rescue us to safety… Well, it wasn’t that awful but you wouldn’t want any of that in Paris! We walked into this shopping centre and I made sure I was always on alert because I was afraid of being pickpocketed or approached by some dodgy people. My sister had to buy a new handbag and I was rushing her to do it quick and now I regret I hadn’t got one for me because just recently I saw this same bag on sale in my city and it was five times as expensive as that one she got! A supermarket felt a bit safer and there was wine and cheese everywhere! Well, I don’t care much for wine but I’m a huge cheese lover and that was for me another Paris attraction! Wine prices can be ludicrously low and it can be cheaper to drink wine than water while in Paris. There are all sorts of it really starting from 3 Euros for a bottle! We got hold of a reasonably cheap one, stocked up on some cheese. We met a fellow Russian at the check-out desk and it’s another proof that Russians have a way of distinguishing each other in a multinational crowd on foreign adventures. Yes, it’s reassuring to know Russia is still here but let it wait for a bit till we come back… We safely got back to our hotel and found out we couldn’t actually open our wine bottle as we had no corkscrew with us! Well, we should have made sure we took one on our trip but it just didn’t cross our mind. What shall we do? Well, the only solution seemed to go down to the reception desk and ask if they had one. Luckily for me, I knew the English word for it. Then my sister made a most funny assumption when she said that we would probably be taken to police for drinking wine at our hotel room! When I told my friend who had been living in France and has a degree in French about what my sister said, she laughed hard! Drinking wine is an essential part of the French identity and cannot be deemed as a criminal act… Well, there wasn’t one at the reception desk and I also asked some people from our group I bumped into in the hall and they also got confused as to how to open their wine. When I went back to my sister’s room, I saw she’d already done it the Russian way – she opened it with whatever she had close at hand! I wish I had witnessed it! That was a Paris miracle! So we had a bit of a meal to celebrate our first day in Paris and it was all falling into place and the cheese was magnifique! Here is to our beautiful stay in the city of romance! We decided we would have an early night because we were shattered by then. Watching a bit of TV before bed was a challenge because all the TV channels were French and again as I said, Je ne parle pas françai… We flipped between the channels mindlessly listening to French and ended up watching some funny pet show. Well, it was time for me to leave my sister’s room and get to our room but I couldn’t get in as my friend was fast asleep and I’d been knocking the door, calling her number but she wouldn’t hear… I was thankful I have a degree in English so I went downstairs to the reception to get another key. Luckily for me, she understood English which even in a bit unfortunate situation like this I was happy to use. Bonne nuit, Paris!