When les Verts go marching in.
Making it to Paris in time for les Verts’s visit was arguably the biggest concern we had in terms of the timing of our move here.  Many months before we landed on this distant shore, Nez’s dad had asked whether we were 99% sure we were moving to Paris or 100% sure.  Only if the answer were the latter would he proceed with les Verts’s travel plans.  Being eternally optimistic and a bit bombastic, we did not hesitate to respond, “100%.”  We arrived in Paris with our suitcases a mere 12 days ahead of Nez’s sister and her family.
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 In Paris, the thrill never ends.

11 May 2008The city never sleeps.  This morning, we were told, the Language Chameleon woke up early and went for a walk around the neighborhood whereupon he came across some of the previous night’s revelers stumbling home but not without stopping for a very public pit stop first.  That is Paris, all right, a city where one group of thrill seekers go home to sleep just as another begins its round.  Sometimes, it appears that the city never sleeps.

Feeding frenzy outside the Notre Dame.  Our first destination today was the Notre Dame cathedral across the river.  It was not yet noon but the heat was already oppressive and the line to get in was already snaking through the front square.  We were hungry so we opted instead to track down a pâtisserie to replicate yesterday’s delights from Eric Kayser.  That was not as easy as we had thought because this very spot, aside from being the kilomètre zéro where all distances to and from Paris were measured, was also the epicenter of its tourist activities.  It was also Sunday, a day when most stores are closed.  We walked all the way to the neighboring Île Saint-Louis in search of any place that was not a total sit-down tourist trap.  There, we settled on the first pâtisserie we saw on rue Saint-Louis en l’Île, where a less-than-friendly, but not quite rude, proprietor sold us decent pastries once we got to the front of a multilingual line.  Needless to say, we were not quite successful with either objectives.

  Epicenter of touristy Paris:  Les Verts posed in front of the old cathedral and wisely skipped the long entry line.  (Photo - Les Verts)
  Playgrounds are universal:  There are no national boundaries on the little round rotating thingy.  (Photo - Les Verts)

But there was no time to mull over silly objectives when there was a nice, shady park to consume our breakfast behind the Notre Dame.  Kingskid and Berryana even found a small playground by the edge of the park and wasted no time in joining the other children on the various contraptions.  Afterward, we returned to the front of the cathedral for another discouraging look at the snaking queues and stumbled upon a competing spectacle:  bird feeding.  We even got a hands-on lesson from the resident expert on the position of one’s arm, the precise way to hold the piece of bread, and even the kind of bread (which he offered gratuitously) to attract the swarm of sparrows.  Before long, the entire ranks of les Verts, except the Language Chameleon who was clicking away on his camera, were standing on the concrete perch with their arms extended and watching with amazement at the feeding birds.  It was such a little thing that brought such great joy.  It was also a prime hunting ground for pickpockets but none were spotted and nothing was lost this day.  We finished off the bird-themed morning with a quick visit to the Marché aux Oiseaux (bird market) at the nearby place Louis-Lépine, which on weekdays did business as the Marché aux Fleurs (flower market).  The timing was accidentally perfect and the children were already loving their trip.

  The sparrows of the Notre Dame fascinate the children.
  Children of all ages.

A site that does not live up to its history.  After a walk-through with the caged animals, which Kingskid discovered could not be brought home for some arcane reason, our group followed the river along the Quai de la Corse to the next destination:  the Conciergerie.  (Also, see the interesting write-up of the Conciergerie by the French Department of Justice.)  Coming off the exhilaration of the bird feeding frenzy, this historical site was underwhelming and perhaps best read about than seen.  Upon entry, we encountered the cavernous Salle des Gens d’Armes built in the 1300s and used as a dining hall that seated some 2,000 people.  Its vaulted ceiling and rows of columns made us camera-happy but the entire space lacked the context to give us any sort of reaction besides “this is a big room.”

The Revolutionary Prison part of the museum, which was its main draw on paper and where over 2,700 condemned prisoners spent their last days before their appointment with the guillotine, was equally uninspiring.  In a way, the scary-looking and amateurish mannequins of guards and even the unfortunate Marie Antoinette herself sitting in a reconstructed cell detracted from the bloody history of the place.  We learned that even in a time when “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” was the rage, prisoners stayed in cells of varying degrees of comfort depending on their financial resources.  Perhaps, the only equality for these condemned men and women was the way they met their end.  In all, the most poignant exhibit was a simple long list of people who died under the blade during the Reign of Terror, two of the most well-known were Louis XVI, “dernier roi des Français,” and Marie-Antoinette, “Veuve de Louis Capet.”  The latter description of the former Queen seemed rather ironic if not a bit reductionist:  She was only the widow of Louis Capet (the surname given to the King after he became a mere citoyen) because he was guillotined nine months earlier.

On a less somber note, at the Conciergerie, Kingskid discovered another great treat of the traveling life:  the well-stocked gift shop.  We left the old prison with Kingskid the proud owner of a new pair of toy knights, or chevaliers, to do battle later on back at the apartment and there was a slight spike in the French GDP for 2008. 

  For the little ones, a detour to the bird market can rival visits to historical sites.  (Photo - Les Verts)
  “A very big room”:  The large dining hall of the Conciergerie that once seated over 2,000 people now sees a trickle of tourists.

The first rude person we met in Paris.  If we were to write a review of our lunch at Del Arte on the corner of boulevard Saint-Michel and boulevard Saint-Germain it would start with:  “The first rude person we met in Paris was an American waiter at an Italian chain restaurant.”  We had to put up with his surliness and air of self-importance to get served so-so pastas and pizzas.  It was not a good introduction to the proper and measured aloofness of the stereotypical French waiter for les Verts and we were embarrassed on behalf of our new home.  We made a quick experience of it and left for a more pleasant place. 

A quick peek into the past and missing most of what is to be seen.  While the women shopped without success (it was Sunday after all) for flip flops and shorts to go with the unforeseen hot weather, Riot, the Language Chameleon, Kingskid, and Berryana took refuge in the peaceful medieval garden of the Musée National du Moyen-Age, nested against the splendid architecture of the former mansion of the Cluny abbots.  This charming oasis behind a very busy boulevard was yet another example of the unexpectedness of Paris.  You never know what you will find behind a corner or a vine-covered fence.  Because we were already there and because of the inviting ring of “Roman baths,” which once sat at the same site, we decided to pay a visit to the museum itself.  We were surprised by the free admission (it was near closing time) and we made a quick dash through the various rooms to see the baths.  We did not know exactly what to expect thus when we came upon the ruins of the frigidarium (cold room) we were mildly disappointed by what little our untutored eyes could discern.  Also in this haste, we neglected to see the ruins of the caldarium (hot room) on the exterior and the renown Lady and the Unicorn series of tapestries.  Sometimes you stumble into a museum accidentally and come away with lifelong memories; sometimes you do so and come away missing the very essence of the place you had chanced upon.  Oh well, travel and learn; expect to return and actually return.

  The museum’s medieval garden attracts lovers to its serene setting.  
  Two ornate entrances separate the museum from the modern world.

Simple dining beneath all the glitters.  We parted ways briefly before reconvening for our penultimate evening event:  a picnic at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.  Of all the books and useful information les Verts had diligently consumed about this trip, Nez and Riot had only this singularly Parisian experience to share with this latest crop of visitors.  (Perhaps, they already knew about this open secret but we’ll still claim credit for it.)  In spite of the Sunday closure throughout the city, we were fortunate enough to procure some really tasty prosciutto, salami, and cheese at a neighborhood Italian deli on rue Montorgueil, pâté, fruits, and a bottle of wine from a liquor store of sorts (go figure), and some reliable baguettes somewhere along the way.  All of that was more than enough to feed a hungry crew of seven; the magic of the old iron tower would have to take care of any remaining hunger.

Picture day at the old iron tower:  the Language Chameleon and Joie ; Eurogrl and Berryana ; and a color-coordinated Kingskid .

We arrived by way of the RER, which while did not provide the same powerful approach as a stroll from the Trocadéro yielded the same end result:  a glowing orange edifice that reached for the sky.  The afternoon heat had given way to a cool evening and we found a nice patch of grass slightly off to a side of the Tower.  (The center esplanade was closed for the time being possibly for the grass to recover.)  We were surrounded by a sea of like-minded people and there was an equal mix of locals and visitors.  Tonight, a bed sheet doubled as our picnic blanket and our last-minute grocery finds proved pleasing to everyone involved.  While we were distracted by the whip-cream spraying antics of a group of nearby French teenagers, fashionably running about the grassy surface in heels, the sky had gotten dark and the Tower had started glowing its halogen yellow.  And, just as we finished with the last bits of food and began to clean up, the night’s entertainment commenced with a rupture of cheers from the crowd and the flashing of over 20,000 bulbs.  It was hard to ignore the universal effect of this every-hour-on-the-hour extravaganza on everyone caught in its midst, perhaps even those who derided it as an over-the-top debasement of a world-class monument but found themselves watching anyway.  For us, there was no better way to cap a packed day with family; for Berryana, it was a further invitation to do more cartwheels.

No multilingual menus and pushy hawkers at this dining experience; just whatever food we could gather along the way and the company of the thousands who share this open secret.  

There are probably millions of photos
of the glowing Tower like this one
but only one that captures the smiles of the Vert children under Gustave Eiffels
glittering namesake


On the way out, we took the scenic route across the Pont d’Iéna up one of the arms of the opposite Palais de Chaillot, passing an intense roller hockey game in progress.  We pushed past the crowd in the métro station, apparently everyone from the light show had had the same idea of a photo-finish exit, and finally found ourselves on a rick-rackety train heading south and then east toward les Verts’s temporary home.  Somewhere between the Seine and La Motte Picquet station, a man and his accordion stepped into our car and delivered Joie’s her Mother’s Day gift of a set list of French oldies.  No, really, it really did happen!  We all believed it, Joie was thrilled, and the magic remained intact.  The notes from this very last event of a very long Parisian day continued to waft in the air even after the man had left us, we thought, to go home to his family.  To us, he looked just like a bored grandfather out for a post-dinner stroll with his favorite instrument, more for the thrill of it than for the coins dropped into his little cup.

By then, it was already long past midnight and every one of us was still wide awake.  The city really never sleeps; it lives more for the thrill than the coins in the little cup.

  Les Verts celebrated Mother’s Day 2008 in Paris (the American version; the French celebrate the Fête des Mères on May 25).
  In the métro:  The women chatted, the Language Chameleon checked our route, and the clock steadily ticked past midnight.

With les Verts safely back at their rental apartment,
Nez and Riot hurried to catch the last train home;
the lovers of Paris, however, lingered on by the edge of the Seine.

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