Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Paris Trip - Anne's Diary

Ahhh, Paris.
The city of love.
The city of art and splendor.
The freezing ass cold city of pushy tourists, pick-pocket warnings, and lines, lines, lines…

Paris Day One: Trip Day Seven

We arrived via the Chunnel after spending a week in London. Then, dragging four large bags out of the train, we lugged them through the crowded and chaotic Paris train station and immediately got lost.

The major problem? None of us speak French.
My youngest can make small talk, but she learned it phonetically and can't READ French, and although I took a DAY of linguistics in college before dropping the class, sadly, I did not learn how to decipher foreign languages perfectly.

Actual Quote: "I THINK that says, 'exit?'"

BTW - "Sortie" in French means "Exit." Just an FYI. I wish I'd known that in that train station.

We blindly followed the crowd. I found this EXTREMELY stressful.

I've been trampled TWICE in my life, both times in pushy crowds, and you put me in a crowded French train station, lugging a 50 lb. suitcase, two kids and a panicking husband, and you got me sweating bullets and trying not to have a panic attack. No joke.

In fact, I was so delirious that when I was approached by a gypsy taxi driver, I actually stopped and considered going with him. As any seasoned traveler, or any New Yorker will tell you, this (as my husband told me later), is the best way to end up murdered. Or, at the very least, mugged.

Thankfully, my husband dragged me away from the gypsy taxi driver, shaking his head at my pathetic traveling skills, and led us to the taxi line in the front of the station.

This is where my youngest, who is almost as paranoid as my husband, instructed me, my eldest, and any English speaking tourist within a mile radius, that we needed to put our purses over our shoulders, BACKWARDS, to avoid pick-pocketers because her French teacher at school had warned her to do that. To shut her up, we did. Consequently, we kept the bags this way the whole trip in Paris and never got pick-pocketed once, so in truth, it was good advice. <<<  highly recommended

After getting into a "Verified" taxi (you can tell by the red and green lights on the roofs of the cabs), we drove in hordes of traffic down winding, tiny roads, eventually to our hotel.

We stayed at the Pullman in Montepasse, which knowing nothing of Paris, seemed like a good idea at the time. We had a specific hotel budget set aside, but Paris proved to be so expensive, this was the best we could afford. This was not the best area. Although there were plenty of restaurants to chose from, and it was literally a block away from the underground station, there were adult sex shops all over (which led to interesting discussions with my children), lots and lots of traffic, and the restaurants (save two!) were mediocre if not horrible.

This was very disappointing. Here I'd heard that the food in Paris was the best in the world, and our first experience, which was dinner our first night, was really, really gross. For one, I'm highly allergic to cayenne pepper. Like, explosively so, as is my eldest. After checking into our hotel room (which was very nice and modern, and stylish) we went and found an open cafe and ate an "early" dinner (any dinner before 7 pm in Paris is considered early), and even though I had ordered roast chicken (which was dry), the chef had sprinkled cayenne pepper on the chicken skin and ALL OVER THE RIM of the plate as a garnish, and me and my eldest had to spend the first twenty minutes of our meal carefully brushing cayenne off the plate and onto the table - which was harder for her because she had a "Caesar" salad (which looked nothing like a Caesar salad) in a bowl, and it's really hard to remove garnish sprinkled around a bowl.

Anyway, we managed! Then, getting back to the hotel, we passed out and were asleep by 9 pm (as per usual).

Paris: Day Two - Day Eight of Trip

Rising at the crack of dawn, we made our way downstairs to the hotel buffet. This buffet, unlike the one in London, was not included in our vacation package, and we soon discovered, was not as good.

Runny scrambled eggs, funny tasting fruit, brown bananas the size of a thumb (not kidding), and pancakes as hard as rocks. The only saving grace were the baked goods. The croissants were splendid, as were the muffins, but my SoCal family used to fresh fruits and eggs for breakfast were in a bit of a tailspin - especially my husband when he found out the price of the buffet. For what it was, it was not worth it. We had not planned to have breakfast anywhere else during our stay in Paris, and had not researched anywhere else, and our restaurant experience the night before had been so dismal, it put us in a rather sour mood when we thought we might be stuck with that the whole week.

And I missed the English tea.

Anyway, we made our way to the underground station, stared at the maps for what seemed like an eternity and got on the train we believed was the correct one - but soon realized we had gotten on the wrong train and were headed in the wrong direction.

At the next stop, we attempted to hop off, but the doors at the next station didn't open automatically (like the ones in London), and the train took off again (taking us now TWO stations out of our way), before some kindly Parisian showed us that you had to push a button at the stations to open the doors.

Anyway, we got off the wrong train, went back to the map and finally found the right one, and because of this we ended up being a half hour later to the catacombs than we had planned.

The Catacombs

It opens at 10 am, and we'd heard from multiple friends that it was super duper crowded, so we thought we were being sneaky by arriving at 9 am and being the first in line. However, after our train debacle, we arrived at 9:30 and the line was already wrapped around the corner from the catacombs. Worst still, the temperatures had dipped from the mid-30s to the upper-20s and we soon discovered we had inadequately dressed for waiting in a long line. In total, we waited 2 HOURS, freezing our asses off. At one point my youngest burst into (frozen tears) and wailed that she couldn't feel her feet anymore. We then took turns walking the kids up and down the block to keep their circulation going as the other adult kept our place in line, and when we were just a few yards from the entrance, a young Italian couple decided to try and cut in line in front of us.

The first to notice that we'd lost our spot was my youngest, who was not about to give up her place in line after freezing her toes off, so we spent the next half hour inching our way back up in front of them, which unfortunately, made a problem for the people behind us, a young British couple on holiday who now had lost their spot to the invasive young Italians.

The British couple weren't about to put up with that, and they weren't about to do it the quiet way we had, so (God bless her) the British woman called out the young Italian couple, and even though I KNOW the Italian girl could speak English because she had laughed at a couple of our comments amongst each other while we had been talking in line, the girl pretended to not speak English at all, and then tried to cut in line behind the British couple (which apparently, they succeeded at because we later saw them inside the Catacombs).

Realizing we couldn't really fix the issue, we pressed on. Finally, we got to the front of the line, and thankfully, despite being told that the caves were colder than outside, they were actually warmer, and we were able to go through the tunnels comfortably (no audio tour, which I wonder if I should have because I can't read French and not all the informational plaques had English translations, and my Spanish is mediocre at best).

We took pictures, we looked at skulls, we asked each other lots of questions which we couldn't answer because none of us could read French and we hadn't done the audio tour, but regardless, we had a good time and purchased several souvenirs at the shop just outside the exit.

After the catacombs, we got lost (watch for a reoccurring theme) trying to find the closest underground station, and instead went into an Italian restaurant and ate soggy pizza. Afterwards, we took the wrong train AGAIN, trying to get to the Eiffel tower. We embraced the wrong train instead of repeating our panicked exit like last time, and went instead to see the church at Notre Dame.

Notre Dame

We arrived at the gorgeous church and immediately noticed a long, long line. Thankfully, the sun was out, and the temperature had improved slightly, and the line was moving at a steady clip. We waited only a half hour and once inside, took some amazing photos.

After Notre Dame, we found the Metro station and took the underground to the Eiffel tower.

Eiffel Tower

I had pre-purchased elevator tickets on-line, but because of the second train debacle, we'd missed our appointment time, but thankfully, the people working at the Eiffel tower took pity on us and let us use them anyway.

There were however, about a quarter of a million people on the second floor of the Eiffel tower along with us. You almost couldn't walk, it was THAT crowded. Wall to wall people. Not only that, every person but us seemed perfectly okay with PUSHING MY CHILDREN out of the way. One lady LITERALLY used her packages like a snow plow on me and my youngest, trying to cut in front of us as we waited for the elevator back down. More on that later...

Before that, however, we stood out on the balcony and took some amazing pictures, but the wind had picked up, and the sun was setting, and it was getting cold again, plus, my youngest was shriveling before my very eyes, so we took turns with them huddled in a tiny corner of the 2nd floor interior while the other of us went out onto the balcony to take pictures. Eventually, we coaxed the girls outside, took some hasty pics, then waited in line for AN HOUR to get back down - literally being pushed, and shoved, and GROPED (yes, an old lady pushed my ASS) while RUDE TOURISTS from other European countries (**cough Italy and Spain, I'm looking at you**) tried to plow their way to the front of the line, even if it was over the corpses of me and my family.

Perhaps, if we had arrived at opening, things would have been different, but I can say, aside from the red-eye flight, this was the 2ND WORST PART of the trip (waiting for that elevator).

Mind you, the pictures are great!
But wow. What a horrible group of people that was.
I spit in your general direction…

After that, I was in a big hurry to get back to the hotel.
But, yes - once again - we got lost on the way to the Metro - and a half hour later, freezing, cold, violated and exhausted, we made our way back and attempted to eat at the hotel restaurant only to find out it was CLOSED FOR THE WEEK (oy vey), and we had to once again venture out into the arctic in order to find food. We found a sushi place run by a Chinese couple with decent repast, (sandwiched between a movie theatre and a sex toy shop), and afterwards, went back to the room, showered, and collapsed by 10 pm.

Paris: Day Three - Day Nine of the Trip

Exhausted, homesick, slightly defeated, and a little ticked, we got dressed without much hurry, and picked and poked at our soggy scrambled eggs and rock pancakes at the hotel buffet the next morning.

The Louvre

I had pre-purchased tickets to the Louvre, one of the most famous museums in the world (if not THE most famous), and nobody but me wanted to go. I had to DRAG my family's butt there. My husband was convinced we should hire a hotel babysitter and leave the kids at the hotel, but I insisted we all go.

Without much drama on the Metro (thank God for small favors), we made it to the Louvre just in time to see the large, massive, catastrophically enormous line to get in.

As luck would have it, my husband had visited Paris a few years ago on a business trip, and knew of a "secret" way in (if you already have a ticket). Are you ready? Are you prepared to know the "secret" way in?

Across the street from the Louve there's an arch. If you face the Louvre, and go TO YOUR LEFT, there's an underground tunnel which takes you to the mall (the "Caurosel') which CONNECTS TO THE LOUVRE.

We walked through the mall and straight to the line to enter the first exhibit without having to wait more than a few minutes. <<<< highly recommended


We dragged the youngest through sculptures, ancient Egyptian exhibits, the Mona Lisa and many numerous other exhibits, and even took an hour to eat at the cafe (with only a twenty minute wait - we ate "early" at noon, and by the time we left the cafe, at 1:30, the line for the cafe was all the way down the hall).

And even though the youngest was miserable and moaned and complained for the first half of the visit, she was much better after lunch and managed to keep her protests to a minimum. She even got her picture taken with the Mona Lisa! (BTW, the crowds at the Mona Lisa exhibit must have been the same people from the 2nd floor of the Eiffel Tower, because WOW - PEOPLE ARE F*****G RUDE).

Despite that, the art at the Louvre is truly worth the trouble, the crowds, the everything.
We left at closing, found the Metro station (without getting lost! yahoo!!) and ate room service at the hotel, showered, and collapsed by 9 pm.

Paris Day Four: Trip Day Ten

Awaking early, but not at the crack of dawn, we braved the hotel buffet yet again, and then took the Metro (without getting lost!) to Disneyland, Paris.

We had pre-purchased tickets and arrived only one hour after opening, but it was still super super crowded.
Like, Disneyland US crowded during peak hours.
All those tourist sites which claim that Disneyland Paris is a great place to go because it's so much less crowded than any of the US parks? LIARS.

It was wall-to-wall pushy tourists - with kids! And cigarette smoke! And long, SLOW lines.
Line cutters had an absolute field day there. It was mayhem.

I think I am too polite for Europe. This is my conclusion.
I'm not pushy. I'm not rude. I'm not about to yell at anybody for cutting, and I'm not about to cut myself, so our family solution to this was for us to stand shoulder-to-shoulder - the four of us - creating what we called "The Tibbets Embargo" which blocked to whole width of the line, thus preventing anyone from cutting through.

This pissed off loads of would-be cutters, who gave us dirty looks and I'm fairly sure we got called a few nasty words - but regardless, we were able to go on a few of our favorite rides, despite how slow moving the lines were, and how utterly rude the other tourists had been.

On the plus side, I have always complained that the food at Disneyland, USA was horrible, and so much better at Disney World, and this proved true of Paris as well. We ate at a Steakhouse in Disneyland Paris that was far superior to any place we'd ever eaten in Anaheim, despite the fact our waiter didn't speak English very well, and couldn't understand that I was an American woman who wanted REGULAR Coke instead of Diet - even after I asked him, twice. Oh well. C'est la vie!

We stayed until one hour before closing, to avoid the mad rush to exit, took the train back (without incident), and crashed at the hotel at 11:30 pm.

This was the night our "neighbors" moved in. I think it was a couple on their honeymoon, and their bed abutted to the same wall as ours…if you catch my drift.

No problem!
I'd packed ear plugs (thank God!)

Paris: Day Five - Trip Day Eleven - New Year's Eve

Through an unfortunate bit of planning, I had booked the whole family for a private tour of Versailles the morning after our all-day excursion to Disneyland.

I really don't know what I was thinking.

It took everything short of cattle prods to get the kids out of bed the next morning, and because we didn't have time for anything else, we picked our way through the hotel buffet for breakfast (again!) and a tour guide came to pick us up directly from the hotel.

I highly recommend this! It was ridiculous expensive, like 500 Euros - but we were so exhausted, and the line to get into Versailles is so ridiculous (as every line in Paris seemed to be), that there was no other way we would have been able to see Versailles.

The tour guide took us, and two other people, (an Australian pair of newlyweds), directly to Versailles and gave us an audio tour, so we were able to walk through Versailles knowing exactly what we were looking at and it's significance.
Mind you, like the rest of Paris it was freakishly crowded.
At this point, however, we were either defeated or used to being treated like cattle, because it didn't seem as bad and we got through the tour, back to the tour guide and back to the hotel without any drama. What a treat!

As a defense mechanism against my rebelling children, my brave husband left us in the room to shower and lay around in our pajamas as he went back out into the cold and bought us pizzas. As luck would have it, right by our hotel was an EXCELLENT Italian restaurant called Pizza Roma and the pizza was by far, the most outstanding pizza I had ever had in my entire life.
Not even joking. I think it ruined me for other pizza forever.

We ate, lounged, acted very lazy, then got "dressed" for dinner at a small fish restaurant I'd found through Google and Open Table. Our reservation was for 7 pm, but when we arrived, we walked into the staff having dinner together and the place completely empty.

The staff was gracious and didn't make us wait outside in the cold. Instead, they set us up with a menu (all in French on a dry erase board, sitting on an easel) and finished their meal while we used Google translate to try and figure out what everything was.

Eventually, a waiter came by and translated it for us and then got us drinks. When it came time to order, however, the waiter didn't speak enough English to answer our questions, and we were given a second waiter, who could - at which point we found out that the first waiter had translated the menu very poorly, and we still had no idea what to order.

Finally, we guessed - seriously - we pointed and guessed - and then waited as food started to arrive.
It was incredibly good! By far, the best meal we had in Paris while we were there. I had some sort of white fish with a butter/caramelized onion mixture and I thought my mouth was going to melt away.
Excellent! Truly.

Originally, we had thought we'd take the Metro to the Eiffel tower to watch fireworks for New Years Eve, but we were so sick of crowds by this point, we decided to call it a night and went back to the hotel and went to sleep by 9 pm.

Paris Day Six - Trip Day Thirteen - New Years Day

My husband decided that morning he'd had enough of the hotel buffet, and after dragging the kids out of bed to get dressed, we used Google Maps (European roaming charges be damned!) to find a REAL Paris bakery, and low and behold, just a few blocks away, we found one open and feasted on quiche, croissants, macaroons, danishes, espresso and REAL English tea (at LAST!). WHAT A FIND!

We then hit the streets and the Metro (no getting lost anymore, we're pros at this point) and saw the Arc de Triumph, the Monteparrse cemetary, and the Sacre Couer (the sacred heart), an old Parisian monastery - along with every other foreign tourist in all of Europe. Navigating the crowds like pros, my daughters have mastered the art of shoving through crowds of people repeating, "Pardon," in French.

We get back to the hotel, pack, shower, and prepare to get up - LITERALLY - before dawn so we can take a taxi to the airport and fly home.

Paris: Day Seven - Day Fourteen of the Trip

We meet the taxi in the lobby, drive to the airport, walk almost directly through security, and now have to wait two hours before our flight takes off.

No problem, there's a cafe in the airport - we eat croissants and shop at the little kiosks and after our flight is delayed, we shrug and play video games on our phones. At this point, we don't even care what goes wrong, because wrong is the new normal.

Finally, our plane arrives, we board, watch movies non-stop for twelve hours, and wait, and wait, and wait for our luggage. Then we wait and wait and wait to get through a passport check. Then we wait and wait and wait to get through customs.

Finally, we get to our driver (we'd hired a car to pick us up), and he drives us home.
We shower, throw a mountain of dirty laundry onto the family room floor, eat fried chicken I buy from the grocery store, and we collapse at 8 pm.

In the end?

Still worth it.

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