Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Asia. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to explore a continent upon which I otherwise would have never set foot, given my limitations and priorities. But after 2.5 years of exploring the nooks and crannies of the Orient, I found myself craving Western Civilization. I needed to get back to Europe…
I wrapped up my Master’s degree with George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Science over the summer, but had long considered one of the elective courses in public advocacy, which included a week studying issues abroad. Locales included Turkey, Hong Kong, Buenos Aires, and Tokyo, but I had my sights set on Brussels. How exciting! I could study the European Union, visit a country I’d not yet explored, and practice my French, too. I applied for the Fall 2017 program in Brussels as an audit, but was told that unfortunately, the Brussels course had been cancelled. Would I like to attend the residency in London, instead?
Now, I can’t seem to escape London. I’ve never been much of an Anglophile, but the city keeps calling my name. I won a fellowship to study at Oxford the summer before my senior year of high school, interned with the House of Commons in Westminster the summer before my junior year of college, visited briefly in 2014 before exploring France (to visit my friend Beth), and now, despite my relative indifference to the city, I find myself offered an opportunity there yet again. Is the Universe trying to tell me something?
I signed on the dotted line (digitally, of course) and accepted the spot on the London residency, but compromised with myself by committing to a few days on the front end in another European city. I didn’t want to visit someplace new without Chuck, but had fallen in love with Paris when we visited in 2014. Why not go again, and skip the touristy stuff while embracing the Parisienne lifestyle, sipping un café at one of Hemingway’s original haunts? Parfait. Paris it is. I was so very excited.
I booked the trip and casually posted on Facebook about my upcoming adventure, adding a
tongue-in-cheek invitation to friends to meet me there, if they were so inclined.
Much to my surprise, two friends – from different parts of my life – messaged me and asked to tag along. Neither had been to Paris before. I told them emphatically that I wasn’t there to do the typical touristy roundabouts. I wanted a more cultural, lifestyle, immersion experience in the City of Light. They both agreed to basically follow me anywhere, and do touristy things on their own if they felt compelled to visit the Louvre or wait in lines to climb the Eiffel Tower… so before I knew it, I was set to meet Paige from Virginia and Rex from New York City in my favorite city in the world (to date.)
Paige and I stayed at the charming Hotel Luxembourg Parc in the 6th arrondissement, Saint Germain-de-Près, near the Luxembourg Gardens. It was a tad outside my price range, but I went for it anyway and I am so glad I did. It offered the perfect Parisienne experience in the perfect Parisienne neighborhood. I couldn’t have been happier with it. I literally stepped out of the building onto cobblestoned streets, surrounded by quiet charm – but near the most perfect cafés and shops, and a mere 10-15 minute walk (depending on what kind of shoes I was wearing) to the Notre-Dame cathedral. Heaven! (For a Francophile, at least.)
I couldn’t even tell you exactly what we did each day, because I planned as little as I could. The whole point was to eat, drink, walk, and at most – shop. We disregarded clocks and all other forms of timekeeping in cafés while savoring the most delicious culinary specimens, that only the French can create at even the most random of corner eateries. We sipped the best wines, even if it wasn’t truly 5 o’clock anywhere.
Paige did make her first “big girl” purchase at the pristine Louis Vuitton shop, where an impeccable French gentleman served us sparkling champagne to celebrate, and I made mine at the nearby Christian Louboutin store on two ridiculously perfect pairs of 4-inch heels. At the risk of sharing TMI (or as perhaps the French would say, a little too much oohhh la la), I dropped plentiful Euros at a French lingerie shop called Aubade as a belated anniversary gift for Chuck (and let’s be honest… for myself, as well.) I loved that the shop doesn’t ship internationally, and that you can only get the exquisite items I purchased if you actually go to France.
We wandered the Christmas markets, marveled at the heavenly lit Notre-Dame, sipped vin chaud, and snacked on velvety fromage with no particular meal schedule – just whenever we got hungry.
I believe it was the second day that we explored Montmartre, ate escargots and French onion soup at the famed Le Consulat, watched the Sacré-Coeur Basilica bathe in golden late afternoon sunbeams, and frolicked on a mechanically questionable carousel (laughing hysterically) while marveling at irreverent street art. We changed into more sophisticated clothes, and ventured to our burlesque experience at the Lido in Champs-Elysées…
… But first… a book signing event! I kid you not. Mere months before this visit to Paris, I read award-winning author Elaine Sciolino’s The Only Street In Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs. I dropped into the esteemed Shakespeare & Co. bookshop that brushes shoulders with Notre Dame, and saw that Ms. Sciolino herself was scheduled to speak there the very next night! I simply had to go!
Rex and Paige humored me, so we situated ourselves in the somehow pleasantly cramped bookshop to hear Ms. Sciolino speak on the impact of globalization on Paris, with the wit, humor, and insight I’d come to appreciate about the writing of the former French Bureau Chief of the New York Times. Since I didn’t know about the event when I packed to head West from Japan, I didn’t bring my copy of The Only Street, so I purchased it from the bookshop on the spot… in French! I shoved my way past aggressive old ladies (who had totally cut me) to get my copy signed by Ms. Sciolino before our big show at the Lido. She happily obliged and I couldn’t have been giddier as I gushed: “I want to be you when I grow up.”
Feeling warm inside (which may or may not have been due to the mulled wine consumed at various points in the evening) we merrily made our way to Champs-Elysées, the most glamorous neighborhood in Paris, to watch our fancy burlesque show. Needless to say, it did not disappoint.
When the feathers, sparkles, flames, and sensual curves had made their exit, we wandered our way to the banks of the Seine to experience our own Midnight in Paris… and when I figure out how to insert videos into this thing, I will show you how the Eiffel Tower magically sparkles at midnight 🙂
The only touristy thing we did with the remainder of our time was browse the Impressionist floor of the Musée d’Orsay. Otherwise, we dined at Galérie Vivienne, enjoyed Marie Antoinette’s favorite tea at Nina’s Tea (a key bucket list item for me), browsed the artwork of les bouquinistes, and wandered aimlessly around the Left Bank.
It wasn’t until Night 3, my final night in Paris, that we decided to go “all out.” First, we dined at the trendy Michelin Guide restaurant Pirouette, (where I actually experienced very little due to the tasting menu being decidedly not vegetarian friendly, but I could nonetheless tell that that everything was remarkably well done.) We then ventured back to the Champs-Elysées area, where we visited two nightclubs: Duplex and L’ARC Paris. As it turns out, L’ARC had hosted the Victoria’s Secret Angels on the eve of their fashion show just a week earlier, and let me tell you – I believe it. The clientele at L’ARC was unbelievably beautiful. I consider myself a reasonably attractive gal, but I never felt uglier than I did at L’ARC! The men AND the women… wowza.
Anyway. Rex, Paige, and I made it our mission to try absinthe – a first for all of us. A sexy and obliging bartender lit 3 shots on fire and instructed us to sip the absinthe through straws as quickly as we could, to avoid getting burned. I was quite frightened, but I did as I was told – albeit poorly – and sucked the licorice flavored substance as quickly as I was able. And girllll, you better believe it. That crap burned. And I mean, BAD. There wasn’t anything remotely pleasant about it. But I got it down. No green fairy to speak of, but I got it down. Meanwhile, the French/European crowd gathered at the bar and laughed loudly as the four oddball Americans – two blondes, a Chinese guy, and a new-addition Filipina friend – struggled to hold our booze.
But we did it, and I’m happy. I’ll never do it again – but I’m happy. Try to make sense out of that one!
In the end, I’m never able to put into words the way I feel when I experience Paris. This particular trip wasn’t what I thought it would be – the relaxing, self-reflective tour of cafés with my nose buried in a book – but it was even better than that. I hadn’t seen Rex or Paige in years. Rex and I in particular go way back, to my undergraduate days at the College of William and Mary, where we started a fledgling hip-hop/fusion dance group that has since taken over campus in a way we could never have imagined. Paige, who I met after college as a yuppie party girl, has seen me grow through various phases of life, and has met many transitions herself in the time that we have known each other. It was a peculiar reunion, but a fantastic one, and I will never forget our independent, Christmas adventure in the city that always leaves me wanting more.