Friday, February 1, 2013

Paris Trip

The other day I took a bit of a different picture:

Ok, not 100% clear? That is a bunch of stitched together pictures from atop this fine monument 

That's right, the biggest homebody in the world has crossed the pond and taken a trip to Paris. I had a paper accepted to a conference there so I went to give the talk. While I was there I had a few hours to see the sights.   The Eiffel tower was one of them.  Basically it's the easiest thing to see in the world because you can see it from anywhere in Paris.  This is true because of two facts:

  1. There are basically no skyscrapers in Paris.  The tallest buildings around are 6 stories.  Probably a city ordinance or something.  The business district is way far away from the city center.
  2. The Eiffel tower is absolutely huge.  I mean, it is 100 times as large as I thought it was.  And no picture can accurately capture it.  I was shocked when I took this picture at how small it looks in the background because in real life it is jaw-dropping.  

There was a line for the elevator but no line for the stairs, so that's where I went.  As a result, I can testify firsthand that there are googolplex floors.  It goes on forever.  Very impressive monument.  From miles away you can just walk toward it and you will eventually get there without getting lost.  

Getting back to your hotel is a very different matter, as I learned over the course of several very lost hours.

The other really noteworthy thing in Paris is the Louvre.  Actually, it's also unbelievably large.  I should write it in all caps.  I spent five hours there and only got to see part of one wing.  If I ever go back I'm planning several days for it and getting those headphones that tell you about the paintings (because everything's written in French, which is Greek to me). I will also bring a wheelchair because my feet were killing me the whole time.

Anyway the size and scope of the Louve all but defied description.  So many amazing works of Art from all over the world and incredibly ancient history.  Probably the least impressive but still the most memorable was this little baby, the Mona Lisa.

Now the Mona Lisa is usually a little more crowded than this.   There were some people around, but not the crowds you normally see.  The key to avoiding crowds of annoying tourists in Paris is to go in the winter.  Everyone was apologizing for the snow and cold while recommending that I come at a warmer time of year.  Meanwhile my wife was buried by real snow in State College, which was like 15 degrees colder.  I was trying really hard not to have too good a time so she wouldn't be jealous.

Here's Venus de Milo.  The real one. 

Actually these two works are just about the only things I saw in the museum that have things around them preventing you from walking right up to them. There were cameras and a few guards, but for the most part, the museum was mostly empty and all the works of art were just there for you to walk up to. I saw a couple of classes of school children going around.  I have no idea how all those works have survived centuries of gradeschool children.

When you go to Paris (especially after watching Ratatouille) one thing on your mind is fine French cuisine.  Unfortunately I was a little disappointed in this.  I had a lot of exceptionally expensive food.  It was all aesthetically pleasing.  Tiny portions on comically large plates.  What's not to like?  Actually a lot.  Maybe that's a winter thing too.  If French people eat a lot of fresh food, they must get hungry in the winter.  Lots of dilapidated vegetables and bread that my children would never be able to bite through.  I'm sorry, but the myth of amazing French food is thoroughly busted in my mind.  I spent hundreds of dollars busting it. 

I did decide to branch out and really get outside my comfort zone with the food too (which Ashley can't believe).  Ate a bunch of snails, for example.

Whether you like them or not is a personal thing.  If you like stagnant mud, you will probably like escargot.  Me personally, I'll stick to hamburgers for eating out, except that they cost like 30 Euros, which is an unreasonably large number of dollars.

Something I can never do again in America is complain about restaurant service.  I spent more time waiting for waiters on this trip (who were just chatting it up with their friends and trying to avoid eye contact with me) than I have over all my restaurant trips in the previous several years combined.  It's not that the places were busy (they weren't).  I think I figured out the problem: after this meal (my first) I left as small percentage of my meal cost, like 5 euro, on the table as a stingy tip and the guy I was with made me take it back.  Apparently you don't tip in Europe, or not very much.  I mean, even if you are satisfied with the service.  As much as I am against America's tip inflation, I have to say that the situation in Paris appears to be quite a destructive cycle.

When I got home my wife told me I must be the worst traveler in the world.  That may well be true.  Next trip to Paris I'm not going to stay at a hotel across from the Louvre or eat at the restaurant across from the Eiffel tower.  Location fail.

Yup, definitely had some complaints about the food.  Otherwise Paris was very nice.  For the most part I liked the people there and in terms of places to see, it really raises the bar.  I only saw two of the tourist  attractions (not enough time...) and was very, very impressed with them.

Couple of other thoughts about the trip (I don't know how representative some of these are):

  1. Jet lag is a cruel, cruel mistress.  Apparently other people are better at handling it than I am, too.  We left in the afternoon and arrived in the morning in Paris. Somehow a large number of people  were able to sleep peacefully on the plane.  Freaks.  And then somehow I couldn't sleep at night either.  I did wake up at 3:30 AM every day, ready to go, though.  Paris is not real exciting at that time of day, though.  I was a sleep-zombie the whole time.
  2. French people wear a lot of cologne and perfume. I mean a lot.  Standing next to two or three French people in the morning is a sure recipe for burning nostrils and possibly a headache.  The quality of their smells was good, but the quantity was altogether, well, foreign.
  3. French people, from what I could see, are sarcastic.  Very sarcastic.  And they were very eager to hear me say things that were stupid enough to reply in a sarcastic manner.  They did not have to wait long.  It wasn't as negative as the sarcasm you get in America sometimes, but it was still surprising.  In my two years in Venezuela I am not sure I ever heard a sarcastic comment from a Venezuelan.  I wonder how sarcastic British people are...they are kind of half way between Americans and the French, right?
  4. French people are very eager to tell me what America's deal is.  This happened more than once.  Actually, about half the time I tried to make small talk with a French person, I ended up hearing them pontificate on the defining characteristic of American politics, or the American dream.   I had a guy tell me at length about the fundamental difference between Republicans and Democrats.  Not ask, tell.  I smiled and nodded.  In retrospect, I laugh.  Of course, a French person in America is likely to hear the stupidest comments about France, so I can't really point fingers.
  5. Euros are crazy expensive.  I turned what seemed like a lot of dollars into Euros and you know what I got for it?  Pocket change.   Next time I'm going to try and get into a conference in the Philippines or someplace like that where the economy actually wants my dollars.
  6. Prices are round numbers and include all taxes.  No more having to do crazy math in your head to see if you have enough money for something.  Round, simple numbers.  Perfect if you have a bunch of deceptively valuable pocket change on your person and you can't tell the difference between a 1 and 2 euro coin.
  7. Paris is pretty much empty this time of year.  At least, the downtown part of it is.  Part of that is the fact that there are no tall buildings to house a lot of people in.  Apparently all the apartments around there are also empty because they are owned by rich people who have winter homes in more hospitable climates. 
  8. People are great at English for the most part.  Unfortunately the few people who speak only French are also the ones you really want to speak to, like the cab drivers, waiters, luggage dudes at the hotel, and security guards that look like they want you to go somewhere but you can't tell where or why.  This experience made me really wish I had taken French in high school instead of Spanish because if I could have even made a weak attempt at French I would have made a much better impression.  As it is, I accidentally spoke in Spanish to any number of people.  It was a very confusing time for me.
  9. I didn't notice the town itself being particularly magical, although I did notice that every single shop is exactly the type of shop I would never, ever patronize in America.  Tiny, with only a few, expensive, items for sale.  Those items were brands that are so big it doesn't seem like they are even real.  Chanel, Dior, Gucci, Rolex, etc.  These are on every block.  There were literally two Rolex shops within a block of my hotel.  In that sense it seemed like some kind of wonderland that borders on implausible.  I guess those brands are not quite as rare and exclusive in Paris as they are here.  Interestingly, the models in all the posters were people you know, like Brad Pitt and Jennifer Connelly.   I had no idea those guys were models as well as actors.
  10. The addition of gold foil baked in does not make food taste better.
  11. It's really true that Europeans are more fit than Americans.  I don't recall seeing a single fat person.  The average person also seemed shockingly young.  I don't understand how this is possible when Europeans have so few children.  I must be getting old very fast.  I met a bunch of high-ranking executives of various sorts while I was there and they all seemed like kids to me.
  12. One reason Parisians are slim is that their portions are tiny.  This was true both at expensive and cheap restaurants.  The worst was the "lunch" provided by the conference.  At noon they announced that we would break for a catered lunch and it was going to be good French food.  But it was what we would call hors d'oeuvres, and not generous ones either.  I'd say there were enough for about half the people to eat a normal snack-break worth.  Most of the Americans, after seeing the provided lunch, snuck out and bought some real food.  When we came back the French people were evidently satisfied by the two or three bites they were able to eat.  I don't know how they survive like that.
  13. Paris is absolutely impossible to navigate.  One-way streets everywhere, each of which is only a few blocks long and none of which are parallel.  Each street twists around and ends in a building, then picks up on the other side with a different name.  Taking a taxi about a mile from the Eiffel tower to my hotel was an interminable ride. I could have gotten there by foot much faster except that I would have immediately gotten lost.  I would probably still be there if I was trying to go a whole mile on foot.
  14. Motorcyclists in Paris are a law unto themselves.  This was literally the first thing that caught my attention because it is so shocking.  They drive really fast between lanes of heavy traffic, up onto and off of sidewalks, through lights.  It's crazy.  Actually it looked like fun.  The strange thing is that no one was honking and cursing at them.  Apparently they were not doing anything illegal.  If you really want to have a good time on a motorcycle (ramping off of people's car hoods or something) Paris is the place to go.
Anyway, I was really glad to go to Paris.  It was a very different traveling experience for me and helped demystify France just a little, even if I did spend all my time in the downtown touristy area.  It's always interesting to see which stereotypes have a basis in fact and which are pure fiction.  I had a good time, although I do wish Ashley could have come with me.  As a couple there are a number of places on our list to visit before Paris, but if we get the chance, we will go back.  We will stay far from the center of town, take the subway in to the tourist areas, take our time seeing things, and we'll study up on our French before we go.  :)


Ashley said...

Ashley wishes she could have come with you, too. :) We'll finish having babies and get them all raised and go take some fun trips together--and I'll show you how to find cheap food and accommodations!

Jacqueline said...

Lovely blog. Almost as good as being there. I also hope you get to go traveling with Ashley. She sounds like a very competent guide.

Danielle said...

Ha! I totally try speaking in Spanish to anyone who doesn't speak English too. Sounds like it was a fun trip!