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Paris Encounter 24-28 July 2003

24 July 2003 (Thursday)

Once more proved that I was insane by waking up at 5.30am to walk to the train station to begin my journey to Paris. Kristin was annoyingly (in a loving way of course) bright and chirpy while I just muttered and groaned and promptly fell asleep the second we were in the train.

We arrived at London Waterloo with more than enough time before our train to Paris was set to leave. We were going by the Eurostar…the famous train that goes under the English Channel through a tunnel, only to emerge in France at the other end, taking a grand total of 20 mins to do so. 3 hour journey, not that either of us felt it since we were totally and completely in dreamland.

Had our first encounter with the wonderful Paris Metro the moment we arrived when we tried to find our way to our hostel. Making our way there was actually pretty easy coz we did have really easy to follow directions. The trip however, was a whole different story.

Firstly, the moment you descend down the stairs into the hole of darkness, you get overwhelmed by this strong stench of urine. Now, most of you know that I hardly have a sense of smell, so for me to be suffocated by such an odour…it gives you a pretty good idea how much it stank. (A few days later, the mystery was solved. While Kristin and I were standing at the top of the stairs looking at the train map and trying to figure out which line to be on, a rather drunk looking 50 year old man stops at the bottom steps and PEES. To make matters worse, we had to go down the very same steps he peed on. Naturally, we kind of skirted around and jumped over the incriminating puddle.)

Besides that, we also had this strange girl who boarded the train, stood at the door staring into nothing, refusing to budge. Kristin then tried to get on the train by moving around her, and she promptly moved to block her. By this time, I was getting paranoid and was wondering if she was doing this so that she could trap us in the station and then she and her friends would mug us after the train had gone. But somehow, Kristin managed to find a gap and squeeze on. I followed promptly and when we both got on, she stepped off the train. I…don’t…know…

Our hostel – the AIJ Budget Youth Hostel is a real lovely place. Entrance looked rather clean with nice friendly staff, with a cosy dining area next to it. Were told that our rooms would only be ready in about 30mins, and so we decided to just dump our bags and go for a short walk in the vicinity. Hostel was a stone’s throw away from the monument commemorating the Bastille. It was a bit of a disappointment coz we were expecting a jail building or something but all we saw was this phallic symbol. (We found out in a museum a few days later that the actual jail building had been removed stone by stone years ago, hence no building.)

Two things noted while walking toward and from the Bastille. Firstly, the French most definitely love their food. The amount of restaurants we passed were unbelievable, especially those cafés with outside seating. Honestly, what you see about Paris is true. The Parisians love their cafés and sitting outside. The next one, which is my personal favourite…Paris was eye-candy galore. (This will be mentioned several times before this report ends, I assure you.)

We passed out when we finally got our room after a 2 hour wait – somehow, they had some cleaning to do which took one heck of a long time. This is a little plug, even though they’re not paying me for this. But if you’re ever in Paris and want cheap accommodation, you know where to go. It’s clean, it’s the cheapest in town, it’s near the city centre, it offers free breakfast, the rooms are a comfortable size…it’s great! Of course, there’s the fact that the mattresses and beds themselves are rather dodgy, so much so that everytime I get onto the top of the bunk bed, Kristin thinks she’s going to get squashed to death by a falling top bunk, but hey, that’s typical youth hostels beds for you.

Had wanted to go to the Eiffel Tower and see Paris by night, but by the time we woke up, it was 7.30pm, so we pretty much changed our minds. Ended up walking the opposite direction and then were walking along the River Seine. It was fantastic. We stumbled upon a quay area where the locals hung out, and I’ve always loved to be able to go to a city where locals and not tourists are and Kristin and I found it then.

The atmosphere was fantastic. It was open air and there were so many groups of people sitting by the river having a picnic dinner. Then there were different groups of people dancing as well which was really cool. There were speakers blaring and depending on the type of dancing you liked to do, you could find the group you wanted to go to. They had traditional ballroom dancing, folk dance and of course, the more hip dancing for young folks. It was like being in a club, without the drinks, flashing lights and sleazy people. It was a really great family place, very very nice. You could choose to just sit and watch the people dancing, watch the boats go by, have a dinner, chat with friends…if I lived in Paris, I think I would be there practically every evening. I loved the atmosphere. People of all ages were there and were all catered to.

The other thing I noticed about Paris was the fact that there were many rollerbladers and skaters. Like how Amsterdam was filled with merciless cyclists, Rome had crazy Smart car drivers, Paris had its whizzing rollerbladers. It was a lifestyle. People in suits, people in casual wear…there were skateparks, skate lanes…

Still amazes me how different cities possess different identities. For Paris, it was a lovely city with a very relaxed atmosphere. There were many trees and the Seine riverbank was absolutely beautiful. The Parisians obviously know how to relax and enjoy life. There were really nice buildings with fantastic Edwardian/Georgian architecture. I could dig living in the city of Paris. Peeped into some apartments and they looked gorgeous. It struck me that London was very similar with Paris, except that Paris gave the impression that it was more cultured and elegant.

Now I repeat. So many cute guys in Paris – probably another incentive to living here. Haha. We were also constantly hit on…I had a group of probably 16 year olds trying to hit on me. Joy. But it kind of freaked me out how openly the Frenchmen stared. Now, this is slightly different from Italy, where the Italian men strikes me as rather sleazy and who will come up to you and smear their greasiness on you. Frenchmen, on the other hand…either simply stare, or come up to you, but leave you without feeling slimy. Once again. Frenchmen are cute.

25 July 2003 (Friday)

Was 10pm when I wrote the notes for today and by then, my legs were screaming for mercy. Kristin had just got up to walk to put down her diary and she could hardly walk. And it wasn’t as if she had far to walk.

We left at about 9am, after a scrumptious breakfast of breadroll with jam and butter. Made our way, by foot nonetheless, to the Louvre to figure out what the big deal was with the Mona Lisa. Ended up being distracted by the Saint-Paul Saint-Louis church which was quite extraordinary in its size and height. Personally didn’t find it as colourful or beautifully painted as the Italian ones, but it was still rather cool. I mean, how awful can old churches look?

Next distraction, which was more or less right across the road – hotel de Sully, previously a private mansion of the superintendent of finance in 1624. The interesting bit is the garden and orangery which opens onto a square, which apparently was quite a fashionable place at that time. The square by the way, had a really huge horse and all those Edwardian buildings all around it. It was really awesome. Reminded me a little of Oliver actually.

The Notre-Dame proved also to be too big a distraction and so we decided to stop and gawk at the immense breath-taking Gothic church. The intricate carvings around the doorway, the amazing architecture, the majestic interior…I remembered all these from my last visit in 1997, but I was still awe-struck when I visited it again. Probably the saddest thing about it was the fact that it had become too much of a tourist attraction, and the main thing you get is an unbelievable amount of tourists who do the customary round to ooh and aah at the stained glass windows all around the inside of Notre-Dame. So much for sanctuary.

We then wandered a few metres in front of the church to find stairs leading underground. Turned out to be an underground archaeological museum revealing the ancient Roman foundations, streets and structures. It was a really insightful visit, to actually see fully intact Roman streets that lead up to doorways which used to be shop entrances, as well as floor heating ducts etc.

Finally, at 1pm, we arrived at what we thought was to be our first stop. The Louvre was awesome, especially the buildings that bordered this huge square with a fountain inside and used to be the palace. Then from there you leave the square to enter another square with more buildings bordering it and in the middle, you find the entrance. The entrance to the Louvre was really interesting since it is underground, covered up by the strange glass pyramid structure that I’m sure most have seen. Then from there, you have a few different elevators leading up to different parts of the palace buildings, which means that the Louvre is ABSOLUTELY HUGE.

However, we did not actually go into the Louvre then. Because there was a reduced rate to entry after 3pm (which was reasonable since it closes at 5pm), we decided to take a walk and return at 3pm. Which was probably not a wise decision coz we ended up getting lost amongst the old streets. I didn’t really complain much though, being that summer sales was happening and every hip and happening brand that you can think of has a boutique in Paris. Ended up buying this rather cool top at Benetton. The best bit of it all was the 70% discount! The sales were mad I tell you!

Anyway, we eventually found our way back to the Louvre after wandering in the northern part of Paris. The Louvre, mind you, was in central Paris. We had to clear the security checks, yup, they had really intense security checks at the Louvre entrance. They X-rayed every single bag you had – Kristin even had her Swiss army knife taken away to be collected when she left.

Unfortunately, we only had about 1.5hours to explore, so we dashed headlong to the Mona Lisa, only to be bitter disappointed. Firstly, there was a mob of people in front of the painting. And that meant we were a fair distance away from it coz there were actually barricades around Ms. Lisa. Then, the painting was small!! And finally, I still have no idea what the fuss was. Didn’t stop everybody from posing with the painting in front of the barricades though. And please note that there were signs all around stating that no photos should be taken of the painting. Bah. There were flashes going off all over the place every second.

After that, we kind of rushed through most of the exhibits, which wasn’t much of a big deal for me. A lot of the paintings, I had actually seen in the Vatican Museum. Which begs the question – who actually has the original paintings? And even if they weren’t the same, I believe that I’ve been spoilt in Italy. Hey, it was the country the Renaissance sprung up from. How much better can art get? We did see the Aphrodite sculpture though so that was really nice.

Of course, a trip to Paris is incomplete when one doesn’t walk down the famous Champs-Elysse, which was basically this long stretch of unpaved sandy road flanked by trees. Interesting walk, although I think the only thing it had going for it were the fountains it had only the way and the fact that it ultimately led you to the Arc de Triumph. Other than that, it was dusty and not really much to scream about.

By then, we were rather exhausted and so decided to sit in front of one of the fountains. It was rather cool, lounging on one of those metal deck chair like thing and just watching people, the fountain and boys playing with this boat thing in the fountain. (I never got what the fun was. They basically stood at the edge of the fountain holding a stick and pushed the boat back towards the centre whenever it neared the side.) Oh, as well as watch the ducks and pigeons…Kristin kept saying she was hungry and I tried to tell her to catch one of the ducks. A suggestion she strangely didn’t take up on.

We wanted to continue walking towards the Arc after our rest, and then work our way towards the Eiffel Tower, which was just round the corner, but by then, it was raining rather heavily and we were really hungry. Ended up deciding to return back to our hostel instead, which didn’t make us any more drier than we would have been if we had continued. But we were exhausted.

Second day in Paris. Found two reasons why I could dig living in Paris.

1. Shopping – it was a shopper’s heaven honestly! Especially with all the summer sales going on, it was mad! The interesting thing though is that even though Paris is supposedly fashion capital with all its great boutiques and cool clothes, the Parisians surprisingly dress rather…well, normally. Unlike the Italians who almost always are dressed to kill.

2. Boys – I’ve mentioned this before, I’ll mention it again. Frenchmen are cute. Of course, I would have to get used to their strange behaviour, but eye-candy heaven man!

Strange Frenchman encounter #1: Happened when we had just started our journey. Was walking along the road when this guy from practically the other side of the pavement came rushing to intercept my route practically exclaiming “You look so good, you should be a professional model!” That was the first strange encounter I got, which freaked me out. So I kind of smiled and hastily walked away. Kristin refused to let me off for the rest of the day.

Strange Frenchman encounter #2: Had my behind nearly grabbed while climbing the stairs. We had gone to the metro station in search of a toilet and when the search ended, I had went up the stairs with Kristin behind me. According to her, this guy cut in between her and I, raised his hand towards my bottom, but something told him to look behind him. He did, only to find Kristin shooting daggers with her eyes at him. He immediately kept his hand and rushed off. In the meantime, I had no idea what was going on behind me. She did mention that Mr. Molester was rather cute, although I was so freaked and disgusted, it really didn’t matter then.

Strange Frenchman encounter #3: I was standing by the side of the road waiting for the lights to turn green. Was chatting with Kristin and smiled. This really cute blonde guy came towards us on a bicycle and we established eye contact while I was still smiling from talking with Kristin. He smiled brilliantly back. It was a heartstopping encounter.

Strange Frenchman encounter #4: Got stalked. Now, that was big time freaky. Kristin first spotted him just openly staring at me. She told me to turn without telling me why. I obediently did so only to get eye contact with him, which scared me coz it was a real intense kind of stare, and things went downhill from there. I guess it didn’t help that when I turned and saw his big round eyes, I exclaimed “Yikes!” rather audibly. He followed us down so many streets. He would overtake us, slow down and pretend to be interested in something in the stores, then when we overtook him, he would be keeping pace with us from behind. And then he would change his mind, overtake us, and the whole thing cycles. We started walking down busier streets though, and something or other told him to give up the chase. Much to our relief.

26 July 2003 (Saturday)

We gave up – walking wasn’t very tempting, especially for Kristin whose legs I was quite certain I killed. Bought an all day pass and decided to see Paris with the help of the Metro – the very same dodgy, dingy, smelly subway system. And honestly, the only thing I disliked about Paris.

So, as good Seventh-day Adventist Christian girls would, our first stop was Montmartre, the red light district of Paris, to pay homage to both our favourite films – Moulin Rouge. We emerged from down below and the first thing we saw was this huge red windmill. It was literally right in front of the subway station!

The real Moulin Rouge is really nothing much like the one in the movie though, except that giant windmill. It covered a much smaller area, there certainly was no elephant, and the entrance was just like the entrance to any other nightclub, except that it was closed when we were there. There were photos in glass displays on the sides though, so we saw the pics and read a brief history of the place.

Apparently, the French can-can originated from the MR, and it was a really colourful cabaret kind of place with dancers donning feather boas and whatnots. There was also one rather scandalous photo of topless dancers. It really was the place for the rich and famous though. One had to pay at least 100 Euros for a show, that included either drinks or dinner. And hey, with patrons like the Queen, of coz they’re posh.

We took happy snaps of course, and while I was taking a photo of Kristin, this bunch of kids, no more than 13 I swear, started accosting me. What is it with me and under aged boys?

Anyway, we decided to walk towards Sacre-Coeur. Unfortunately, I had a dyslexic moment and failed to different right from left, so we ended up heading in the wrong direction. Thus began our grand tour of the red light district of Paris. Which turned out to be really eye-opening.

Firstly, this part of Paris is certainly really different. It was very much more dirty, the number of times Kristin and I had to skip over, dodge and detour around dog poo were numerous and the buildings were less grand. It does however, feels safer than the red light district in Amsterdam and it still had a nice neighbourhood feel to it, even though it was dingier than the rest of Paris.

So we finally made it to Sacre-Coeur, which is one of the most amazing churches I’ve ever seen. It was built on a hill and one could see practically the whole of Paris from there. It looked white from a distance, being built from this really pale grey stone type thing and it was incredibly grand. Which struck me as really interesting. Sacre-Coeur, being in Montmarte, was obviously a sanctuary built for the so-called “low-lifes”. And yet, it was probably the most impressive church in the whole of Paris. Says a lot doesn’t it.

I really loved the atmosphere of the entire area though. Even though it was filled with tourists, the area had a very artisan feel to it. Which only goes to show that artists and prostitutes seem to generally hang out in the same area. There were a lot of caricature and portrait artists. Many of them just outside Sacre-Coeur, practically stalking tourists and pleading to draw their portraits. Also went to this square with many roadside stalls as well as artists with their stands, drawing all sorts of stuff. It was an amazing place. Cobble-stoned paths and all. Had a really quaint, arty-farty feel to the whole place.

After strolling around and soaking in the atmosphere, we decided to educate ourselves on the French Revolution and moved off to Musee Carnavalet. Free museum, woohoo! It was a rather enriching experience with all the paintings depicting the history of Paris as well as the French Revolution. Really felt like I belonged to Paris with the whole 14 July-Bastille day connection.

The main problem we had that day was the fact that it kept raining. It didn’t help that I lost my ability to read maps that day and we keep getting lost. We took such a long time trying to find that museum it wasn’t funny. Ended up at this other museum, the Forney Library, and having our sandwiches at the front gate. Now, this is significant because we found out that years ago, a maid was murdered at the very same gate. Joy. So for the most part of the day, we were wet, which was rather annoying. Although I had to be thankful that it wasn’t freezing cold and for most time, it was only light rain so we could still walk around without being thoroughly drenched in the first few seconds.

We decided to go back to our hostel for a while and decided to hop on a bus just so as to avoid the rain. Turned out to be a bad idea since we had to swap from the bus to the metro. Problem was that we didn’t know where the metro station was. Ended up having to walk a fair distance in the rain to the station which defeated the whole purpose of taking the bus to avoid the rain.

Fed ourselves with more sandwiches and at about 7 in the evening, we left to go to the 24 hour post office so that I could by some stamps to mail my postcards home. We ended up in the world’s most confusing metro station which was merged with another train system, there were numerous exits and we were utterly and totally lost. Ended up having to ask directions from some policemen.

French post offices are exasperating. It was impossible to find envelopes and boxes and I was told that if I wanted them, I had to find them elsewhere. What the heck? Anyway, met this girl from Hong Kong at the post office who got unbelievably excited when she realised I spoke Chinese. She was trying to find the Arc coz she was going to meet a friend there.

Stamps bought, we hoped on the metro to get to the Eiffel Tower, and that was where all our “troubles” began. I was sitting at the seat and caught sight of this guy who was seated diagonally opposite me using sign language. I leaned over to ask if Kristin could understand them. She started staring, got caught and the next thing I knew, the guys invited us to join them.

Turned out that both guys were deaf, although one could speak rather legibly. Kristin ended up communicating with them and coincidentally we were getting off at the same stop. They ended up following us all the way to the Eiffel Tower and by then, Kristin had developed a horrible crush on one of them. It was rather amusing. He was cute and seemed pretty sweet. We said goodbye though coz we were planning to go to the top of the tower.

So, we arrived at the topmost level of the Eiffel Tower at 10pm and it was a really great sight to see Paris by night. It was unbelievably windy but the view was gorgeous. One could see all around Paris and with the fact that there were hardly any skyscrapers (the tallest building was literally the Eiffel Tower), one could see for miles on end. I managed to see the Arc de Triumph with its eight lineless lane of cars, Sacre-Coeur lit up, wonderful Georgian/Edwardian buildings, it was beautiful to see the floor plan of Paris.

27 July 2003 (Sunday) Shopping day! Well, we tried to make it shopping day, but seeing that a lot of the shops weren’t open, it was kinda hard. But anyway, the moment we stepped out of the hostel, we realised that the main roads were cordoned off by policemen and were absolutely deserted. There were throngs of people standing by the streets and so we decided to poke our nose into the business as well.

We were rewarded a few minutes later by an endless number of cyclists in bright yellow vests. Turned out that we had stumbled upon the Tour de France! That was great. We probably saw some famous people, but seeing that I knew nothing about the Tour de France, it didn’t really matter.

We walked on towards the Bastille and found that there was a Sunday morning market going on there. Went crazy buying stuff. Well, not really, but I bought a few jewellery for aunt and friends.

Anyway, I thought I had to do the tower tour of Notre Dame, to see the bells, the route that Victor Hugo took that inspired the Hunchback story, so we walked there and attended mass! It was really great coz for once, all the lights were lit and it was a different atmosphere when the lights were all lighted up. There were gorgeous lines and the pipe organ was just absolutely fantastic. It was rather funny though, they had chairs in the middle for the congregation, and then on the sides, tourists were still milling about.

Kristin decided to stay for mass while I queued to go up the tower. It was drizzling at that time and I was standing in the rain in the queue. The queue was too long and I was getting frustrated so I decided to forget it and we decided to go look for lunch instead.

Ended up in front of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop and it was the quaintest looking building. Two stories filled with an endless number of books, wooden beams, really old cottage place just filled with English books. It was soooo cool. After oohing and aahing, we walked out and I had wanted to take a photo outside the building. Just as we were about to start posing, this rather dirty (as in unbathed) tall blond came up towards us asking if we had a lighter.

He was more or less ignoring me and just talking to Kristin. Was really surprised that we didn’t smoke, and then started trying to chat her up. Then he saw this guy walk by and so decided to ask him for a light. Before he did so however, he leans over towards Kristin, takes a whiff of her and declares “you smell nice!” Freaked us, especially Kristin, out.

We decided to blow the joint, but the next thing I knew, we heard footsteps running towards us. Cornered, we had to face him and he asked Kristin if she had a “friend”. (He was totally ignoring me by the way.) Kristin says, “yes, her” and points at me. To which he swears colourfully in Dutch and then Kristin realised he had thought we were lesbians. She cleared that up but said she had a boyfriend back home. We ran off after that. It was the funniest and scariest experience.

So finally, we found a place for lunch and I had cheese foudue for about 15 euros. Rather expensive, but it was sooooo yummy. I was so stuffed full of cheese by the end of it all.

Went back to do the tower climb and we had to tackle about 800 steps each way, and they were circular all the way up. It was tiring and dizzying. But the view at the top made everything worth it. I reckon I had a much better view up the Notre Dame than up the Eiffel Tower. It was really cool to be so near al the gargoyles and be so near the amazing Gothic architecture of the Notre Dame.

The view was fantastic and it was really interesting just how much the Eiffel Tower stood out from everything. It was probably one of the tallest structure in Paris. Also saw the La Defence building with the big square hole in the middle (we went to visit, I just can’t recall which day).

Saw the bell tower and there was actually a guy in there which was rather funny.

Anyway, we went to the very top of the tower and actually saw the Tour de France from the top. People were cheering and I think we actually saw Lance Armstrong. Granted he was tiny, but not everybody can say they saw Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France from the top of the Notre Dame tower!

When we came down, we just sat in the square in front of the church and there were three guys playing the violins. It was really nice and one of them looked so much like Matthew Lillard. I had to give them some money. And then we went off to this park and there was a whole symphony just playing under one of the really cool buildings. Violins, cello and the whole shebang. The music was fantastic and the atmosphere was just amazing.

By this time, it was evening, so we went back for a bit of a rest and decided to come out to get some nice cakes for dessert. Bought some sparkling juice as well and went back to our favourite quay where the locals hung out. Saw people doing the capoeira and what took my breath away was that one of them was an Orlando Bloom lookalike. Granted, he had dreadlocked hair, but besides that, he really could pass of as Orli. Couldn’t stop staring.

Anyway, we sat by the river, drank and ate. The atmosphere was just so nice. Went to the bigger more contemporary dancing group and found Orli lookalike number two selling drinks. I was going crazy lemme say that.

Will certainly miss Paris with its fantastic atmosphere, its many outdoor music, dancing, cafes, art…great city Paris is. Oh, and the cute boys. Ha!