Paris: the Winnipeg of France

I always had the idea that it was less important to go to Paris than it was to be seen being in Paris, that somehow going to Paris gives you sophisticated traveler street credibility. Seemingly everywhere is compared to Paris, like Winnipeg, known as the Paris of Prairies according to the late Gord Downie.  Of course, Paris is famous for food, drink, art, monuments and the cafe lifestyle, but for us it was never really on our “must do” list.  We’re not sure why, but then again, we wanted to visit Belgium.

We quickly realized that Paris was not as easy as Brugge; at Gare Nord we followed the crush of people to the Metro line and were greeted by a dozen ticket stations and a large map showing the Metro routes.  It looked like the silicon trails on a large microchip.  We had no idea what to do and our appeals of “Anglais” were met with “non” and shaking heads.  Too many people had places to go rather than deal with a couple more tourists.

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The Paris underground

We chose two “5 day” passes and hoped it was the right thing, struggled through the turnstiles with our luggage and were greeted with an information booth and two men yelling at each other in front of a Rolex billboard.  The woman at information who thankfully spoke English told us to take the #6 metro then transfer to the #4.

We hauled our bags up and down stairs, through tunnels, looked for signs, avoided busy commuters, stubbed our bags on walls, doors, homeless people and other lost tourists who, like us, aimlessly spun round and round while staring perplexed at the Metro map.  Sometimes we hauled our bags up simply to carry them back down again, only to carry them back up once more.  We were cursing every step of the way.  Merde!

I dreamed of putting my feet up at Hotel Max and cracking one of five beers we bought on our way out of Belgium; the extra weight now not seeming entirely worth it.  But finally we made it, checked in and headed up the elevator one at a time, since the elevator really was the size of a phone booth.  (Thanks for the “heads up,” Thomas).

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Hotel Max, not to be confused with Mad Max

The elevator said “max 4 people” but they must have been Napoleon sized because I doubted it could hold more than two Pauls.  We walked into our room that looked like a bedroom display at IKEA.  The furniture was semi-funky, with a wheeled bed, open shelves and an apostrophe-shaped table that was about font 72, but we had a lovely private veranda surrounded by robust shrubs of rosemary and lavender.  After shoe-horning our bags into every nook of the room, we showered and went out for dinner, stopping at a restaurant called Orleans Paris.  I had a large salad and Julia some fries (they’re not called French fries in Paris, just fries) and a rather ordinary steak.  After a crème brûlée dessert the bill was a whopping 70 Euro and we drank water.  We were not in Belgium anymore.

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Typical Paris street scene with Boulangerie.  No gluten free options here!

We sauntered back to our hotel and were greeted by Lawrence, the night host, and quickly struck up a conversation about our plans for Paris.

“A tour is good,” he said. “but I would recommend the night tour.  The city is much more beautiful at night. And The Louvre is of course beautiful, but you’re only here for a few days.  You need many days to see the Louvre because it so big.  You can come back again and see it, but there is so much else to see in Paris, unless of course you love art galleries.”

Art galleries were not really our thing, but we felt it necessary to go up the Eiffel Tower until Lawrence offered this opinion: “The problem with going up the Eiffel Tower is that Paris is not that beautiful without looking at the Eiffel Tower and the only place you cannot see the Eiffel Tower is from the Eiffel Tower.  Save your money and admire it from the ground.”

We hadn’t considered that, but at least we now had some direction.  Our first full day in Paris would be spent exploring.  Lawrence recommended the Champs-Élysées, Eiffel Tower (from the ground) and many of the other “main” monuments in Paris, then finishing up in the St. Germain district: “old Paris,” as he called it.  All were easily accessible on the Metro, which he mapped out for us.  We wanted to see the catacombs, which happened to be only a few blocks from our hotel, but learned there was a “social demonstration” affecting the site: the French term for strike.  Lawrence had a common opinion of the situation.

“In France we strike and then we talk.” he laughed. “It’s the French way.”

This led to a two hour discussion about the state of France, the EU, immigration and French culture, some very interesting context for us.

When Julia asked him if President Macron was popular, he responded by saying that Macron was a “puppet” for his business friends.  He talked about the EU being created by bankers to make money but that they didn’t care about regular people.

“Many people are losing their jobs and the cost of living is rising.  An apartment in Paris now averages 1000 Euro per square metre.” he said. “It’s getting harder and harder to live in Paris.”

“Trains are a big part of the problem,” he continued, “because Macron wants to privatize some of the more profitable train lines and reduce less profitable lines.  This is causing much discord.”

Train employees have a lot of benefits, a good pension plan and can retire early which is seen by some to be excessive, but for Lawrence, the train serves an important social purpose.

“The train is necessary for communities outside of Paris.” he said. “Without the train, people are forced to move to Paris and the city is already too big and too expensive.  We need more people in the countryside, everyone knows that, but it’s hard to find work in small communities so the railway is a lifeline for them.”

On immigration we shared similar views.

“People say that migrants are a big problem in Paris, but it’s not true.  They are a small percentage of the population and they are doing jobs that nobody else wants.  Go to the Metro at 5:00 in the morning and it’s all Africans and people from the Middle East cleaning the floors.  There are a few that give everyone a bad name, I understand that, but France doesn’t take care of migrants either.  If you come to Paris you’d better learn French or it’s too bad for you.  You’ll never find work.”

The next morning this was evident on our way to the Metro.  I saw many young fathers and mothers with children in strollers begging for money, their cardboard signs with scrawled letters saying “Syriene SVP.”

As suspected the catacombs were on strike but we were assured that the guides were signing a new contract and that the strike was over.  “Check back tomorrow.” They told us so off we went to station Bir Hakeim, or “Eiffel Tower.”  We emerged then walked past some street construction until we finally saw it–the Eiffel Tower.  “Wow.” we thought. “There it is.”  We stared at it for a few minutes then decided to find a better perspective across the Seine River.

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First look at the Eiffel Tower from close up

We got to the magnificent fountain at the Trocadéro (a school for the arts) and the Eiffel Tower was laid out before us, the perfect postcard, the tallest structure in all of Paris still to this day.  Controversial at the time, it was a testament to the pliability and strength of iron, as well as a celebration of the industrial revolution.  The good stuff about the industrial revolution, not the Charles Dickens’ stuff.

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Eiffel Tower from the fountains at the Trocadéro

From the Trocadéro we walked past the Grand Palace and Petit Palace (both of which were under renovation), then walked up the Champs-Élysées all the way to the Arc de Triomphe, which itself was closed because a firefighter band was playing beneath it.  We took the Metro to the Louvre, looked at it and both agreed it was too big to visit with our weary feet.  After a short walk around St. Germain, we headed back to Hotel Max, stopping at a grocery store on the way to buy a couple Bordeaux wines for 2.50 Euro (on sale!), some cheese and crackers then retired early (passed out).  Saturday was a visit to Versailles, something that had been on my bucket list for some time and on Julia’s bucket list since… oh, the day before.  After seven hours of walking and two bottles of wine, I slept like I’d met the guillotine.

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About 2% of the Louvre