My first full day in Paris was one of those happy days that I hope to hold on to for the rest of my life. Just to pull out in tough times. I want this day to be my adult lovey.
It was Wednesday, March 14. I hadn’t seen my firstborn child, known here as Nutmeg, since the end of winter break in January. I woke early, about 5:30, having slept pretty well, and smiling, knowing that I would see her today. At that time, though, she hadn’t even left London.
I folded the bed and got cozy on the couch with coffee and my laptop. I always have a goal of journaling every trip in real time, so I tried to write down everything about the first day. (As usual, this ambition wouldn’t last beyond the first day.) Around 7:30 a.m., I checked in with Nutmeg, and she told me she had just gotten through security at St. Pancras station. I’d forgotten that London is an hour behind Paris! Because I’d been so anxious to spend as much time together as possible, sweet Nutmeg had agreed to haul her butt from the suburbs to the station in the dark pre-dawn. (In retrospect, I should’t have asked her to do that. What was I thinking? But she later told me that even before 5 a.m., lots of people were waiting for the bus with her, so many that she barely got on the bus. Apparently Paris was not the only place having strikes; there was a tube workers strike in London.)
(Notice that everyone in the above photo is wearing athletic shoes. That’s one of the things that changed in 30 years since I lived in Paris. I’d been worried I would stand out wearing my Nikes. Nope!)
I set out extra early to meet Nutmeg at Gare du Nord, because I wanted to stop at a bakery called Du Pain et Des Idées, recommended by several friends. I took the No. 5 Metro line from Place d’Italie to
Jacques Bonsergent station, and walked from there to the bakery. The Metro was still fun at this point, every station a French lesson in the huge ads on the walls. When I arrived, there was a line coming out the door of Du Pain et Des Idees. A very good sign!
(Note the flour sacks in the photo above: “bio” means organic.)
There were lots of lovely pastries on display, and the line gave me time to read the names of things and prepare to order. The staff spoke some English and the customers did too, reinforcing my understanding that this was a famous place that attracted tourists. I ended up getting one pain au chocolat for Nutmeg and a chausson aux pommes (apple slipper, but really more like a turnover) for me. I asked for a baguette a well, but was told they don’t have baguettes, just a brown, heavy looking loaf called pain des amis, which I now know the bakery is famous for. Apparently an artisan baker bought this lovely vintage boulangerie about 20 years ago and turned it into a foodie sensation.
I took my paper bag and walked along the Canal Saint Martin toward the Gare du Nord, which would be a 20 minute walk for people who don’t get lost all the time. Without data turned on, I could still use my phone’s GPS feature, so I had some guidance, but not turn-by-turn directions that I really need. I had to keep adjusting and readjusting my path, studying the moving dot on the Paris map downloaded on my phone. I was low-key looking for a bar called the Lavomatic, but I didn’t end up passing it. Not that I wanted to stop for a drink at 9:30 a.m., but I’d heard about the place on a podcast and wanted to see it.
Although I had set out plenty early, before I know it, it was almost time for Nutmeg’s train to arrive and I was not yet at Gare du Nord. Then I came to a big train station. Yay! I stepped inside, only to see a sign reading “Gare du Nord,” with an arrow pointing toward the back of the station. Huh? This wasn’t it? If followed that sign, and another sign that pointed right out the exit and down the street. Soon I was running up some stairs, wondering where the heck Gare du Nord was, and if the place I’d just been wasn’t Gare du Nord, what was it? (It was Gare de l’Est, the place where the title character in Amélie first encountered the photo booth mystery. In fact, the stairs I ran up trying to get to Gare du Nord on time are also featured in the movie.)
I turned on my data, and got a text from Nutmeg that her train had pulled into the station. I ran! I didn’t want my kid to arrive with no one here to greet her. Finally I jogged into the real Gare du Nord, with its signs for every train ever created — Metro this way, Eurostar that way, Les Grands Lignes (The Big Lines), and all the shops and the crowds of travelers. I followed a sign for Eurostar up an escalator and found myself in front of the line to depart for London. A friendly worker directed me — in English — to the quais directly below us for arrivals. Passengers from London were already streaming out of that gate, but I managed to get myself in the right place before Nutmeg came out. Huge hugs! So happy!
I asked her if she wanted to get a coffee. Hell yes she did! The first thing I saw when we stepped out the front door was a huge Popeyes. Popeyes in Paris? There was a Five Guys too. We walked past all that, and found a small cafe on a sidestreet a little away from the station. The staff was friendly and didn’t make fun of me when I asked if we could eat the croissants we’d brought at the table while we had our coffee. It’s funny, with all the rules in France, that this is one rule they don’t have. A cafe creme for me and an expresso for Hazel (we giggled to learn that there is an “x” in the word in France). The pastries from Du Pain et des Idées were unbelievably wonderful. So flaky, so buttery. We shared them both. Then I paid, left a tip (2 Euros coins, probably too much for two coffees, but tipping is hard for me there), and we returned to the station to take the Metro “home.”
Nutmeg was thrilled and amazed to find herself in France. Like me, she loved reading all the ads. We walked from Place d’Italie to the apartment, through the courtyard, up the stairs, and to our door, and she was just as charmed as I was by the studio.
I sat down and finished planning our day, giving her some time to unpack. The only thing on our schedule was Les Catacombes, at 5 p.m. We decided to have lunch before doing some touring that would eventually bring us to Denfert-Rochereau, where Les Catacombes are located.
The cafe our hostess had recommended, just outside the apartment, didn’t list anything on its chalkboard that we felt like eating, and then I accidentally took Hazel to the Olympiad Metro, when we really wanted the Tolbiac one. But in the process of walking back and forth, we found a cafe with a lunchtime menu that sounded good: Cafe Canon.
The waiter was a cute Timothée Chalomet type. At first we chose to sit in what turned out to be the smoking section, I think, so after ordering, when we saw him again, we asked if we could move, and he was agreeable. Wait, a nice waiter? In Paris? And cute? If I lived here, I’d lunch here daily.
I had the soup of the day for my entree: veloute de choufleur (cauliflower puree).
For my plat, roast chicken with potatoes. It was advertised as “like Grandma made.” I would have prefered the chicken cooked a little more so it comes off the bone easier.
Hazel had this slow-cooked beef and mashed potatoes for her plat. It was heart-breakingly tender and the gravy was (chef’s kiss)!
I thought I could eat infinite mashed potatoes, but we couldn’t finish this bowl, even working together. That might have had something to do with all the bread we ate. Hazel also had an Orangina. I don’t remember what her dessert was. The food took forever to arrive, and even though we were happy to sit and chat, by the time we were done eating we were anxious to get on with our day. Too bad I had forgotten that they won’t bring you your check in France unless you ask for it. So we wasted another 10 minutes or so waiting for that until I finally went to the register and paid.
Then we took the Metro to the Arènes stop to see the Arènes de Lutèce — the first-century amphittheatre from when Paris was a Roman settlement called Lutetia, or Lutèce. It’s not a tourist destination many people go see — in fact I had just recently learned about it in my pre-Paris reading — but it wasn’t too far from the other Left Bank sights I wanted to visit on the way to the catacombes, so I figured why not?
With relatively little trouble (compared to my usual travails), we got into the park that contains the ruins, and as I’d read, the sunken, fine-gravel-covered arena floor was full of kids casually playing soccer, some older men playing boules, and teens just hanging around sitting on steps or parapets. There was also a small group who had come to see the ruins, like us. There was a square hole at the bottom of the wall inside what would have been the arena. Nutmeg pointed out that this had probably been the holidng area for the lion, before it was released to fight the gladiator. It had bars and was full of what looked like park storage. That pretty much summed the place up: a combination of archeological site and everyday neighborhood rec area.
Outside the park, we read a bunch of placards that explained how the arena had been re-discovered in the late 19th Century during a construction project. A lot of people had wanted to just keep building the project and ignore the ruins, even though they knew they had stubmled upon one of the only Roman structures Paris has. Fortunately, conservationists won out.
Next, we wanted to walk by the Pantheon and into the Jardin du Luxemberg. Leaving the Arènes involved getting lost and ending up back at the park several times, but we were enjoying walking the French streets, seeing French people, overhearing French conversations and reading French signs. Everything was new and fun.
We ended up at the Jardin des Plantes, which hadn’t been on the agenda, but which Nutmeg really enjoyed walking through. Did I mention she is studying botany? I should have put it on the agenda to begin with. Since it was March, not all plants were flourishing yet, but there were interesting labeled trees, including one that was really old. And then we saw a whole yard full of wallabies, and another enclosure with full-sized kangaroos. I had not visited this place much as a student, so it was neat to check out.
At the Panthéon (shown above with piled up trash due to the sanitation strike), we craned our heads to see the big letters dedicating it “Aux grands hommes la patrie reconnaissante,” (“To Great Men From a Grateful Nation,”). I whipped out my guidebook and told Nutmeg about how King Louis XV had built this as a new, better temple to Genevieve, patron saint of Paris, but that the revolutionaries had immediately rebranded it into kind of a secular mausoleum. It occurred to me that the reason the dog in the childrens books Madeline was named Genevieve was probably because of St. Genevieve’s status. We didn’t pay 11.5 Euros to go inside to see the copy of Foucault’s pendulum or Victor Hugo’s tomb, but we probably should have.
Outside the Panthéon, people were selling potted daffodils as a cancer fundraiser, and I think advertising some kind of run, with stationary bikes, etc. I would have liked to buy some flowers for our apartment, but I didn’t want to carry the pot through the Catacombes. Then we turned our backs to the Panthéon, and Nutmeg got her first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, off in the distance. Peek-a-boo!
Next, we had planned to walk through le Jardin du Luxemberg, but we got nervous that it was getting too close to bone time, so we decided to instead take the most direct route to Les Catacombes, walking along a busy road. On the way, we had our first encounter with les manifestations, which would be our constant Paris companion.
First we saw a squadron of black-clad police, wearing riot gear, but looking bored and walking very slowly, along with a long line of police vans. We just barely were able to cross the street before they arrived. Next came the protestors. I didn’t see any signs at this point, and people walked quietly. A lot of them looked like older people, which made sense since they were protesting a proposed increase in the retirement age, from 62 to 64. We were charmed that we had seen this very French event. Little did we know what a major part of our trip these protests would be.
We didn’t see any boarded-up shops, but we did notice that this bank had boarded up their ATMs. A protest precaution? I assume so, although I don’t know for sure.
We got to the Catacombes early, and I was annoyed we hadn’t taken my planned route through the Jardin.
But then we walked up to the glossy glass door door of the catacombes and noticed a sign posted there: “Due to the workers’ strike action, the Catacombs must change their opening hours today.” Our tickets were for 5 p.m., but the sign said, “Last admission at 4 p.m.”
What? This was outrageous! There were plenty of other people standing there too, who also held timed tickets in their hands. The protestors were nowhere in sight, and they really hadn’t looked violent or anything, so I couldn’t understand why this would be a reason to close the attraction. Did the staff need to go home early to avoid the traffic? We shared some complaining with some of the other folks who were let down, pointing out that the Catacombs had all of our contact info — you’d think they could have sent out a mass email or text about this. I turned on my cellular data and pulled up the web site. The early closing information was in fact posted there. I made a plan right then to check the web site of each attraction we were scheduled to visit, in the mornings, before leaving the wi-fi of the apartment.
Oh well. I would have to try to get a refund. I was sad, though, because the Catacombs is popular, and lets in a limited number of people. I didn’t know if Nutmeg would be able to see them before going back to London Friday evening. Because we’re fans of Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb series, which involves a lot of skeletons, we’d really been looking forward to it.
We doubled back to the Jardin du Luxemberg. This was an exciting stop for both of us. For me, I’d spent time there in my student days, mostly cutting through it to get from the Metro to my school, the Centre International des Études Critiques. But as a temporary Parisienne, I’d also relaxed there in the green chairs, strolled the paths, watched kids push sailboats with sticks, and looked at the statues. For Nutmeg, this was the setting where Cossette and Marius met and fell in love in Les Misérables. After she was cast as Jean Valjean in a kids production of the musical, this kid read the whole dang book.
We chilled in the Jardin for awhile, watching the kids play with their boats and talking about all we’d seen already and everything we were going to do in the next two days, until we literally got too chill and had to move around.
We looked at some statues — all women — Nutmeg admired some plants, including a lawn full of crocuses.
We looked around for the mini Lady Liberty that is supposed to be here, but didn’t look too hard. We were getting tired.
On the way out, we of course stopped at the Medici Fountain, a wonder of engineering when it was built in the early 17th century. At that point, everyone on the Left Bank had been hauling water from the Seine.
Then we walked around to the front of the Palais du Luxembourg, saw fancy people coming in and out, noted the armed guards in the doorway — the palace now houses the French Senate — and took the Metro home, stopping on the way to buy a 10-Euro flat of strawberries and to check out a lot of other lovely fruits.
We also stopped at the pȃtisserie/boulangerie across the street for this lovely dessert to share.
At home, we rested our feet and feasted on a spread of the groceries I’d brought. And the delicious pain des amis, of course.
We turned on the TV — Grey’s Anatomy, dubbed into French. Does Arizona look airbrushed to you? Weird, right? I went online and managed to get us new tickets to Les Catacombes for Friday afternoon, 3:15 p.m., which we figured we could just squeeze between our Michelin-starred restaurant lunch and getting Nutmeg to Gare du Nord by 5:45 p.m. for her return to London. I complained to the company that sold us the tickets and asked for a refund.
Outside our window, these big white buses were loading people. We think they were loading up protestors to join the march? We never found out for sure.
While I was working, Nutmeg fell asleep on our shared pull-out bed. She’d started her voyage before dawn that morning in London, after all. Unfortunately, I ended up sitting up a bit late, triangulating the next day’s schedule, and then I didn’t sleep well. I was trying to sleep with my noise canceling headphones on because of the street noise, and they sort of forced me to sleep in an uncomfortable position. So our 7 a.m. alarm hit hard Thursday morning.
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