Sometimes it’s healthy to reflect on memories, especially when the present feels overwhelming.
A mental staycation of sorts.
So I’m reflecting on the single weekend my husband and I spent in Paris for my 30th birthday. The reason we were able to do something so seemingly extravagant is because we were already living in Europe. We lived in Edinburgh, Scotland, where, in our first two years, we struggled to invent food to eat…
and we were certainly not seemingly in a position where we could gallivant off to romantic European cities on a whim.
So halt your anger and resentment, please. I’m having to do the same thing and I’m writing this.
The reason we were able to jet off to Paris for a weekend is because we soon learned that, once you’re living in Europe, you can get to other parts of Europe pretty easily and inexpensively.
This is because Europe has better public transportation than America and it also has budget airlines.
And I mean budget airlines.
For example, Ryan Air.
The first time my husband and I ventured onto a Ryan Air plane, stunned at how we paid pocket change for a flight to another country, thinking how awesome Europe was in comparison with America because you couldn’t even find a flight from Wisconsin to Iowa for the price we were paying to fly from the UK to Spain and…
then we were physically trampled by the other passengers.
We didn’t realize that Ryan Air flights did not have either any semblance of sane organization or assigned seating.
As a result, boarding the plane seemed to be an all-out free-for-all.
But we somehow managed to peel ourselves off the ground, brush ourselves off and then proceed to board and claim seats on the plane.
Yet, the biggest surprise to us Ryan Air virgins was when, after the plane landed on the runway, a trumpeted melody was played over the plane’s loudspeakers like
🎺FUCKING TA-DA HOLY SHIT WE DID IT!🎺
And then everyone on board clapped and looked so crazy happy.
I mean, everyone looked like the musician they had paid to see was now walking onstage after six opening acts.
David and I looked at each other and realized we were lucky to be alive. The people who had trampled us before now looked at us so jovially and also almost drunkenly it was… well, the wild array of emotions was oddly infectious and it made us feel alive.
It was either
a) feel alive
b) get really confused/angry.
Feeling confused and angry was something to do when we were not on holiday. As such, we felt alive and were happy with our Ryan Air experience.
Therefore, the next time we boarded Ryan Air we shrieked HUZZAH and, arms flailing, joined the banshee throng in a rush to get seats and then later cheered loudly and insanely with the successful landing of the plane.
Traveling in Europe with little money felt so much more like a genuine adventure.
Traveling across America with little–>no money in my twenties had felt much more highway-focused and isolating.
Anyways we went to Paris for my 30th birthday! And, by this point, we had lived in Scotland for over two years so we felt we really had international budget travel down.
In fact, once we disembarked from the Paris Metro and officially stood on Paris cement, I helped an older French woman figure out which train she needed to catch in order to get to her destination and then navigated the ticket machine and got her her tickets.
It was as if I knew what I was doing for the third time in my life. I felt so motherflipping competent and capable and worldly when helping the French woman who was in turn so thankful and appreciative, it felt like anything was possible.
And that is how our weekend in Paris started.
We arrived on the afternoon of a Friday in early October. One thing we realized as we first wandered around Paris is how we had forgotten what autumn looked like. Living in Edinburgh, each season looked the same with the only change being what shade the greyness was.
So our breath was taken away when we saw Paris, a four-seasons city, in the autumn.
One of the first things we did in Paris was buy fruit and a bottle of wine which we could drink in a park while we stared at the Eiffel Tower.
We felt so French.
We named the Eiffel Tower “Ted” because we are strange.
But what’s impressive about Paris is how you can pick the most reasonably priced wine and it will have a cork.
And it will also be amazing.
In the States, you can find a five dollar bottle of wine but it will have a screw top and also taste like a five dollar bottle of wine.
Or maybe we just got lucky with the cheap bottle of wine we chose. But I’d like to think that that every beverage simply tastes better in Paris.
On our first night, feeling overwhelmed by our successful exploration of Paris and still feeling grateful to be alive as a budget traveler, we wandered into an empty cafe which was located in the city center but tucked away on a quiet side street…
and we ordered two coffees from the man working behind the counter.
He cheerfully greeted us using both French and English.
Since we had just arrived in Paris that day and because we were in the city center and also because I had immediately lost the confidence and capability I had felt once we left the Metro station earlier that day, I didn’t feel compelled to apply the three years of high school French I had and ordered our coffee using the language of English.
We sat near the windows of the dimly lit cafe, watching the traffic outside, processing how we were in Paris, and quietly sipped our coffee.
I’m not a coffee snob but, unless the coffee is remarkable, I prefer that sugar and milk is added to it.
Yet, while I had asked for milk and sugar, I did not add either because that two euro cup of coffee in the humble cafe on a side street in Paris was
It was then it really sunk in that Paris was the real deal. It was as wondrous as everyone who loved it said it was.
As we left that cafe on our first night in Paris, I felt a burst of enthusiasm and turned and called “à plus tard!” (see you later!) over my shoulder as we pushed through the door to return to the street outside which then caused the barista to explode with French in response.
While this delighted me, it also freaked me out and I essentially ran away from him then but I learned that, even if you don’t feel confident in conversing in a second language while in a foreign city, it’s generally appreciated if you try.
Well, at least if you’re in the designated Tourist Zone.
We ended our first day with a walk down Champs-Élysées which featured French Vogue covers from years past.
It’s like Paris couldn’t get cooler if it tried and it doesn’t have to because it’s Paris.
It was the end of our first day and Paris had already exceeded expectations.
Thus, the cool thing about Paris is how it didn’t disappoint.
It felt oddly familiar, largely due to how so many films we had seen over the years had featured so much of the city. Consequently, we were always saying “I feel like I’ve been here before.”
And, at the same time, it felt genuinely like we had walked onto the film set of Paris. In other words, holyshitwereinliteralactualmotherflippingParis.
The next day we set back out to stumble around and have our minds blown. This was to be our single full day in Paris and we were determined to see all that we could see.
And, as we walked down Champs-Élysées and gazed down at the Seine River like we were in a movie or a book, we realized the coolest thing about Paris is how, despite it being difficult to not run into a ridiculously gilded and golden, extravagant historical landmark at every turn, the city felt modern and “lived-in”.
For example, there’s this insanely famous landmark, Arc de Triomphe, but, in application, it’s simply a traffic roundabout.
Some cities (Milwaukee) have trash and dirt in the center of their traffic roundabouts, but Paris simply takes a different approach.
Paris also didn’t feel like it had been completely overtaken by outsiders and tourists… during our budget weekend, we felt as if we were visiting a foreign city filled with its regular inhabitants who were just casually going about their daily lives and who didn’t make us feel like we were the outsiders even though we were.
So, even if the most boring looking photo we took still has some garish gold statues sticking up in various places,
the city felt accessible and oddly down-to-earth.
At the same time, it was also jarring… like
there’s that *thing!
look over there! There’s that other thing!
It was a little overwhelming because usually you have to hunt for notable statues/buildings/locations when in a historical city on holiday but, in Paris, you just turn around and BAM you’re surrounded.
“Hey, I know that place!
And holy cats there’s that thing!
Everywhere we looked…
Versailles, Champs-Élysées, Sacré-Coeur, the Egyptian obelisk thing, Montmarte, Grand Palais, Palais Garnier…
wherever we looked, there was an over-the-top landmark.
Because they’re all literally packed in the same area.
So you can just wander around without any kind of itinerary and honestly you can’t blow it. You will see all the stuff you associate with Paris.
You don’t even have to try.
Well, unless you’re older or not in semi-peak physical condition. Because then you’ll have to either try or spend more than 48 hours in Paris.
But, again, the locals were around at all times. It didn’t feel like Venice had felt which, in our weekend there, had been overwhelmed by largely German tourists to the extent that we felt as if we had accidentally landed in Germany.
I know there were locals everything in Paris because they all looked at me weirdly when I became infatuated with a tree.
Sure, there’s all this beautiful human-made stuff but then there was also this tree which had a humble little fountain.
And I just loved it.
And the locals, even the homeless locals who lived under the bridge, thought I was crazy and told me so.
I didn’t care.
The only time in our very brief visit where we felt like we were tourists in Tourist Land was when we attempted to get close to the Louvre.
It was like an endless corridor of white gravel and tourists which was also spattered with Louvre compound corridor seating areas and the such and, meanwhile, the building loomed in the distance but never seemed any closer.
We didn’t even know how much we cared about the Louvre. We weren’t going to spend our entire weekend attempting to get into the epic art museum and then spend the rest of our time walking around indoors… we simply wanted to get close enough to take a photo.
But it felt as if we could never get there.
Yet, my strength was renewed by some of the amazing Louvre Endless Courtyard public art.
And of course there was more priceless historical art along the way.
Yet, the Louvre remained “that stretch of building in the distance”.
Oh my word…
However, physical science prevailed and eventually we got close enough to the Louvre and its gardens to finally take some pictures and cross it off our list.
At long last, we found ourselves standing in front of the Louvre.
And… yup, there it was.
I mean, the building was amazing but also somewhat disappointing because we only had to take five steps and run into public art or a building that was its aesthetic equal in Paris.
I understand that the point of the Louvre is to go inside and view all the amazing artwork but…
In any case, we walked roughly thirty miles in a day and a half and I had never felt so physically exhausted in my entire life.
And I have epilepsy.
But, because it’s Paris, even though you’re feeling physically at your end, you turn around and holy cats it’s Notre Dame.
Fine. We will go see Notre Dame.
For no particular reason and if it was the last thing we did, we decided that we were going to get close to Notre Dame and, if there wasn’t a crazy line, we were GOING INSIDE because we were not potentially fainting from exhaustion on the streets when there was a perfectly good cathedral to die in instead.
And we did it.
Honestly, Notre Dame was cool but it had nothing on the cathedrals in Spain.
Since we had Ryan Air-traveled to see Spanish cathedrals first, by the time we saw Notre Dame, it was little more than a check mark on the list and a sentimental nod to my Great Uncle Peter who was 100% Irish, the only Catholic I knew when I was four, and a man who loved the Notre Dame American college football team
just because of their name.
But, now that we had physically entered the cathedral, clicked a few photos and walked around a bit… wow, I was ready to go.
If I could ever find David.
We then walked the fifteen miles back to our hotel/hostel/I don’t remember but I know it was cheap and that’s where we slept like the dead.
On my actual birthday, on the final day of our weekend trip to Paris which was a Sunday and also the day we were to leave Paris, we spent the morning sitting outside a cafe and watched all the Parisians walk home with flowers and bread because, on Sunday mornings, everyone in Paris seemed to buy fresh flowers and bread for the week.
This was my favorite revelation about Paris.
We sat outside and watched them all descend the Metro stairs with their flowers and bread all morning.
It was amazing.
Also, as we sat outside, five different strangers approached us to ask if we had a light for their cigarettes.
“Pardonnez-moi, Avez-vous un briquet?“
“Excuse moi, avez-vous une lumiere?“
“Vous n’auriez pas du feu?“
“Est-ce que vous fumez?”
And, since I had felt as if I had died in the best way, sitting there at that cafe on that quiet sunny Sunday morning in Paris as if we were a common part of a natural Paris scene, I felt capable of understanding and speaking French:
“Non. Désolé.” (x 5)
We were on fire. And still wearing the same clothes we had worn all weekend because we couldn’t afford to pay for any kind of luggage storage on the plane.
Maybe we weren’t making a fashion statement but I had not completely freaked out when Parisians talked to me so I was Ms. Confidence for about four consecutive hours that morning.
That afternoon, we left the city center to visit the famous cemetery Père Lachaise.
We stopped at a cafe and I made David go up and order even though he had taken German in high school because it was my birthday and, in the time it took the Metro to take us there, I had again lost my French language confidence.
I’d had no problem in Italy because I really crammed beforehand though Spain was a bit rough because I always think I know more Spanish than I do but Paris completely disarmed me.
It could also be that I was suffering an ongoing nervous breakdown on account of my being in the final stages of doing my PhD and it affected my communication skills.
In any case, the Parisian barista was nothing if cold and hateful towards David as he ordered even as he decently repeated the phrases I told him to say.
This had nothing to do with us being in France… if we didn’t speak English and went up to someone anywhere in America, we’d likely receive the same treatment.
Outsiders are unwelcome in most human settlements.
Thus, if you aren’t in the recognized “tourist” area of a foreign city, it’s best to learn phrases that will get you by and find some confidence in delivering the phrases.
Or else pretend you’re mute and copy the phrases from the translation book onto a notebook page.
And then, if you’re really going with pretending you’re mute, you can look all upset and indignant about any callous treatment though I’m pretty sure that would be somewhat unethical.
Also, call me a goth, but, while the tourist guts of Paris are amazingly within walking distance in central Paris, Père Lachaise is worth the Metro ride out to “real Paris”.
A Tour of Père Lachaise
The final portion of this blog post is composed largely of photos because holy shit this cemetery is the most wondrous place in the world and I have the pictorial evidence to support my argument.
First of all, its entrance is great but, of course it is, it’s Paris.
Well, honestly its entrance looks a lot like how Edinburgh looks everywhere but… with more statues and also gold.
The cemetery provides maps which turn out to be very helpful and I’d argue…necessary.
Walking through this Parisian cemetery really drives home the fact that all human history has been crafted and shaped by mere mortal organisms who simply end up ash/fungi.
But this didn’t feel depressing or sad… as this feeling took hold of us while we walked through the old cemetery, it felt humbling and also quite precious.
In fact, it seemed as if the tenuous line between this world and the next was almost visible.
This feeling was primarily grounded in seeing the memorial sites of the people who had shaped who we felt to be.
For example, to stand before whatever physical remains have been left by Frédéric Chopin felt intense.
Like… “Chopin? Yeah, he’s just there.”
Indeed. There before me were the remains of my favorite composer and it felt almost emotional to see that his grave was still lovingly adorned with flowers as if he had only recently died.
In the grand scheme of time, he has only recently died.
Yet, beyond the famous, life-shaping people whose physical remains had been placed there, the whole place felt magical.
Even the trees at Père Lachaise were amazing and other-worldly.
The cemetery also had the grave of my favorite philosopher. Again, as I was in the final stages of doing my PhD and had chosen philosophy as my methodology I had a favorite philosopher.
And this philosopher’s focus on the body and spirit and all of it (in a very small nutshell)… well, seeing the site where his body had been laid… le corps, la chair… well, I wondered what he now thought about it all.
And, honestly, standing in front of his grave in that cemetery, it felt perfectly possible he would manifest and share his renewed phenomenological perspective on leaving his physical body and also his thoughts on the others’ choice of sarcophagi.
Naturally, other famous intellectuals and creative types who shaped modern thought and expression were and are buried here.
And it was such a trip to imagine them as being real people.
It was also the first cemetery we’d been in where we could just think of some creative figure who had influenced us and then go visit them.
And, in the midst of the famous people and their grand monuments, there were lovely simple sarcophagi.
And then there was the… imposing.
Which had… stairs.
Cemeteries with full-grown trees are usually calming to me but this place really took the cake.
The various monuments and sculptures and statues ignited my imagination.
My husband the classically trained painter became emotional when he saw that Georges Seurat, the father of neoimpressionism and a very significant figure in art history, or so I was told, did not have an elaborate sarcophagi but, rather, had been laid to rest in his family’s mausoleum.
And, in contrast, Gericault’s grave had his most famous painting engraved onto its surface.
Yes. He was a painter.
Could you tell?
David’s emotion when seeing this grave matched that which I felt when staring at Merleau-Ponty’s grave.
Saying that, having his Raft of the Medusa etched onto his grave… the man either died at a time of peak popularity or else was a legitimate planner with an ego/need to never be forgotten for his contribution.
It’s probably pretty macabre but this was my favorite mausoleum.
An actual princess being buried here wasn’t as wondrous to me as how her grave incorporated glass.
Like Snow White.
Then there was the massive crematorium.
It was active and large clouds of grey smoke hung in the hair above the chimneys.
We walked inside the main building of the crematorium which was composed of multiple buildings. It had two levels and countless plaques of names which of course represented all the people whom the crematorium had served.
There were so many names on the wall and so many buildings in the crematorium complex and so much smoke… it all made us feel a bit dizzy.
So we left the area and walked back out into the trees and mausoleums.
Among all the artists and intellectuals, there was also the sarcophagi of a famous Parisian train conductor and people still tossed their metro tickets on it in memoriam.
Yet, the most explicitly loved memorial monument in the cemetery appropriately belonged to the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde.
All over Oscar Wilde’s memorial monument were lipstick kiss prints.
And I mean… all over it.
Naturally, there were no potted and maintained flowers but, rather, small bouquets wrapped in plastic, single roses, hand-picked wild flowers and also messages of adoration which simply blanketed the monument.
Since the cemetery was otherwise immaculate, seeing this somewhat out-of-place sporadically-constructed outpouring of love and the use of color markers and Sharpies certified the legacy of Wilde.
I’m pretty sure those who run Père Lachaise do not allow any other memorial to be written on.
Similarly and also in contrast, the American musician Jim Morrison’s grave was sparsely adorned.
Though I’m pretty certain the people who manage the cemetery generally do not understand the semi-trashy way of honoring the cultural leaders of outsiders and, therefore, clean up the loving gestures/shit people leave on the memorial sites.
In her memoir Just Kids,
Patti Smith shares how she visited Père Lachaise and the grave of her kin peer, Jim Morrison. I’m too lazy to get up and find my copy of the book to provide the exact quote but, while she was standing at Morrison’s memorial site, a Parisian woman who saw the state of his grave (covered with flowers and random shit) felt it was terrible and said something like, “You Americans have a strange way of showing your people you care.”
Now I’m thinking I really need to get up and see what she really said but it was essentially “You people suck and have no honor.”
That was over half a century ago now, but I somehow doubt that the feeling around Père Lachaise has changed a lot.
So I assume they regularly clean off the “novel trashy shit” from the foreigners’ graves.
That or else nobody feels the same way about Jim Morrison now.
In any case, between not smoking in the morning and visiting the best cemetery in the world/in my experience, it was a wonderful birthday weekend.
We left the cemetery, took the Metro to the airport and then flew back to Edinburgh on our budget airline.
It would be wonderful to return to Paris if Americans are ever allowed to leave the country again and if we ever have enough money to buy an international plane ticket as we no longer live on the right side of the Atlantic.
Years ago, Ryan Air had been publicly contemplating offering a flight which crossed the Atlantic Ocean
but then they stopped drinking and dropped that idea.
In any case, for now, I’ve recently decided to purchase a $5 bouquet of flowers weekly from the clearance bucket at the grocery store as a nostalgic homage to a lovely domestic routine performed by Parisians on Sunday mornings.
Since they’re $5, the flowers don’t generally last an entire week but it is the thought that counts.
Happy quarantining, everyone! Thanks for reading. Please stay safe.
CONSUME/SUPPORT SMALL BUSINESS AND DISABLED PEOPLE
Please check out my Brain Wars Etsy shop where I sell my demented Microsoft Paint illustration prints and hand-glued copies of my ghostly storybook The Bank Doesn’t Care If Your House Is Haunted... as everything is on sale. 🤠
Fare thee well and, as always, remember music is medicine.
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Our five year plan Vally! 😂😘😘😘😘💙💙💙💙💙