One of the most famous cities in the world and a place I had seen images of my entire life. The countless movies ranging from Midnight in Paris to Ratatouille, hundreds of books and articles , and of course photos from every student who has ever been abroad on Facebook.
On the first weekend of November, it was my chance to see the city for the first time, with a great group too. Max and I had been planning this trip for months, wanting to see Normandy one of the days in order to get to the D-Day beaches. Also coming along were two buddies from his Rome program, and coming in here and there was the one and only Jeff from the JFRC. After weeks of planning ahead, looking at ways to get to Normandy, getting rejected by an airbnb owner and going into another hostel, we thought this was going to be just an uneventful fun trip. Ha ha.
Leaving all together, Jeff and I had decided to stay over at Max’s apartment since it was closer to the bus we were going to take at Termini to the airport and we wouldn’t have to worry about trying to find the 990 bus at 5 in the morning. Excited about the next days to come, Jeff and I were looking forward to sleeping a little bit so we could function in a few hours and get on the plane bound for France.
When we got to the apartment, however, the front door was opened to a large group talking and drinking in the front “lobby” area. Out of the wood works Max appeared giving me a big hug. I looked at him with my suitcase in hand and said,
“Uhh…aren’t we going to bed?”
With a laugh Max quickly replied, “No man, we’re going out!”
Fast forwarding to three in the morning, the guys were finally convinced to leave Campo di Fiori and get ready for the plane ride ahead. But we had caught ourselves in a complete downpour. Jeff and I tried to hide under his jacket but the rain somehow waterfalled in anyway. Rivers flowed down streets as if we were in Venice, even the Tiber overflowing its normal level. I was beginning to question how the heck we were going to fly in this weather.
Utterly soaked, we put all our things together and groggily headed to the bus that would take us to Termini. However, one member of our party, Ish, was not there. Max and Adam had called him and messaged him…but there was no sign of Ish. In the midst of the dark downpour there was only us and our luggage. Soon this dark scene was interrupted by a hurried flash of a Roman bus. Behind it in the distance was Ish of course, running in a mad furry. Even though we cheered him on, the poor guy missed it and would have to take a cab in order to catch up with us.
Reminding you again that it was still pouring, I had a little fiasco getting on the bus to the airport. Apparently, there were fervent instructions to print out the ticket, and a printed page of the confirmation code would not be accepted. Of course the lady would not print out the ticket for me either nor did they have a printer me to use. So they made me buy another ticket. How nice is that. Didn’t know that I would have to buy a ride for two people in order to get to Ciampino!
I remember the beginning of the flight, and that is about it. I was tired, still soaked, and hungry. Max on the other hand woke up for the overhead view of the Alps and took some lovely pics of an unconscious me. Waking up to our Ryanair flight beginning to land, I realized it was STILL RAINING. This time a little worse with strong winds and darker clouds. We started to endure mass turbulence, the kind that makes you believe you’re not going to make it turbulence. Or maybe that’s just because I hate the drops and swerves of the occurrence. But everyone was grabbing on to there chairs as it was getting bumpy and the ground was getting closer. I looked out the window and thought, “Well, at least I can say I saw France before I leave this earth.” The plane, however, still at top speeds, somehow managed to jump its way onto the runway and was met with thunderous applause. I checked my pants to make sure I didn’t pee myself.
The group then found ourselves in a rush of three hour transit: first figuring out the bus that would take us to Paris itself from Beauvais, the cold middle of nowhere airport where we almost died. Then from there it was deciding what kind of ticket we would need to take the Metro, and after looking at maps to see how the heck we would get to our hostel.
Don’t worry, once finding the place and getting settled, we found a bakery and rewarded ourselves with fresh pastries. Unbelievable. Our first taste of French food was their desert, which was a fantastic choice to say the least. I cannot fully remember the pastry I had now….but I believe it was some chocolate pastry puff, because I had a lot of those during our trip.
Basing our later day on the fact that the Louvre would be open until 9pm because it was a Friday, we decided to explore the area around the Seine. Walking along the river we crossed the Love Lock bridge, full of lovers, non-lovers, and peddlers selling locks alike. I’m not sure if it has been torn down yet but that was the big news at the time, that the bridge had become to popular and thus it was starting to weaken the bridge, emphasize the ever poignant saying of “too much of a good thing..”
Walking along the river you realize how much the movies got it right….which is rare. The architecture of the buildings, the smells, it was like I had fallen into a TV set. But it was real, authentic, and beautiful. Blue roofs and buildings covered in a hazelnut creme, letters painted on them right out of a Toulouse Latrec painting.
Having just read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, a memoir about his time as a young man in Paris, Jeff and I were literally taking our conversations in class into practice, strolling along the old green bookseller and print stands that lined the riverwalk. Hemingway had talked about how he walked past them every morning, and it was fun to actually relive his past culminating in a stop to The Shakespeare Book Co., a local haunt of the Lost Generation. We spent a good 45 minutes as a group looking at books old and new, and finding a first edition of A Moveable Feast, I put it back as quickly as I had picked it up, as the price tag would have made it impossible to but a ticket back to Rome.
I forgot to also mention that as we were walking by the book stands, there was a cliche hustle going on. You know, the one where the man has a bead in one of three cups and switches them around, and the victim places a bet on the cup they think contains the bead at the end of the cup musical chairs. Looking at Jeff, I laughed and stated how could somebody fall for that now, as there was so much out there saying it was a big scam. We agreed it would be crazy to even think about trying to play that game. Well, as we all congregated at Shakespeare Co., Ish and the other guys kind of had a look of shock on their faces. Ish, who looked the most disappointed, facially made me ask what had happened.
“You see that cup game that was going on by the river?”
He had lost 100 euros.
With Ish a bit down we headed over to the famous Notre Dame Cathedral, one of the most famous and oldest buildings in the city. No, I didn’t see any gargoyles or hunchbacks up close, but the inside was absolutely beautiful…just a tad dark. It was massive, and with an actual mass in French going on us tourists roamed around the edges of wood paneling and stone statues. The weirdest thing was that we actually ran into a girl that had gone to St. Ignatius with us, but being abroad that just started to be a normalcy. In Paris, in Notre Dame, at the same hour…..the odds of that are just unbelievable. But those kind of things happen anyway.
Around 6pm we decided it was time to head over to the main event of the day: the Louvre! With the sun setting on the city, we were given beautiful views of the Eiffel Tower overlooking the blue roofs, the walls of the buildings having an orange creamsicle look about them.
The sweet part about after hours and being a student was that we got in for free and there were no ridiculous lines! Walking right under the glass pyramid I was reminded of that last scene in the Da Vinci Code…wondering hmm could Mary really be down here? (All in good fun of course). Some of the boys were a little hungry so before we dived into the massive arena that was the Louvre, we went to the cafe. Ish and I, however, went to the bathroom as the other guys went into the snack area.
Seamus, why are you mentioning you went to the bathroom? Is that necessary? Can’t we just assume you take care of your bodily functions?
1. Never assume. 2. Trust me, it is important to what happens next.
Leaving out of the bathroom to join the other guys I didn’t think anything of it. But as we started chatting and the cafe began to close (it was on regular museum hours), we all started to wonder the same question: where was Ish?? In the first fifteen minutes you think dang he’s having a big one, but after that you start to worry that he had an Elvis Presley Episode. We went back to the bathroom to check up on him but he was gone. The stall was empty. No Ish. We looked around the lobby area and seating areas on the second floor. No Ish. We went back to the cafe to see if he was waiting around there. No Ish.
Don’t get me wrong, I was worried about the guy, but I also didn’t want to have my experience at the Louvre being a manhunt and not enjoying anything. So we decided to split up: Max going to the right, Jeff, Adam, and I going to the left meeting up at the Venus de Milo statue in 30 minutes. We did not truly gage, however, the expansiveness of the museum, and the trifecta found ourselves racing through some of the Egypt sections just to get to our meeting spot. Still, no Ish spotting. Meeting up with Max he had no luck finding the mysterious escapee either, so we decided we would enjoy the Louvre and try to find him later thinking maybe he got lost and went outside.
Thus we saw Winged Victory, took selfies up close with the ever small Mona Lisa as no crowds were there, and then going to the next room found the painting that was on the cover of Coldplay’s Vida la Vida. Some of the painting were simply beautiful-you could tell that this was once part of a palace complex.
After spending a few hours in the Louvre and having walked all day, we were a bit tired and had not eaten dinner yet. Going outside to the Tulleries we still could not find Ish, instead finding the beautiful wonder we deemed the Sparkly Tower. For those who don’t know, I am referring to the phenomena in which the Eiffel Tower once it becomes dark has a light show every hour. It has the effect of the tower being made by diamonds, as it glows and ruminates the Parisian night sky for a fleeting moment. In awe of this and still not knowing where Ish was, we decided to lie to ourselves that it would be okay, that he was probably on his way back to the hostel, and he knew how to get home. I think the hunger got to us.
In what was to be a kind of tradition for the trip, we ate very well for dinner. But it’s Paris! In a place so known for food how could you not indulge yourself and write it on the budget expenses as another museum you saw. In the Latin Cafe of the Latin Quarter, we dined like kings sharing the house wine, going through so many bread baskets that the waiter even commented on it, and oh man…..Creme Brulee to top it all off. This was unbelievable Creme Brulee. Like every time I took a bite it was followed by and “mmmm” or “wow”. Max also had us all try his escargot, which was fine actually, I just hated the fact knowing it was a slug.
Full and content, we got back to our hostel to find……no one. Ish was not in his room. Everything had been left the way we had left it when we first set out. HE WASN’T BACK. We all started to panic then. It was 10pm, it had been hours since we had seen him….the situation had just gone FUBAR.
While Jeff focused on the praying section of our rescue squad, the rest of us used my phone (which thankfully I had just filled up prior to the trip) to call their abroad program and ask what to do. It started to become a big deal. The program’s Paris adminstrator was notified, people in Rome were on high alert, and we were told to report immediately to the French police. Great. This is not how I envisioned this trip going at all. But we had to find our lost friend, someone I had only met 24 hours prior. We grabbed our coats with Max in the lead, and as Adam and I started walking down the step with reality setting in deeper with every flight, my ears took in a shout of “YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING ME!!!!!!”
It was Max at the front desk asking for directions, when low and behold, none other than Ish himself walked into the hostel lobby. Jesus. Mary. And Joseph. He had made it back.
After recounting to us how he had gotten confused that the cafe closed and thought we had left him, he waited in the Louvre lobby (we somehow didn’t see him) until closing, then got super lost in the metro system. This explanation was followed by Adam stating, “I need a beer.” Everyone followed suit, and let out a little laughter now that we had Ish back.
We woke up early the next morning to take a train out to the Normandy D-Day beaches, something Max and I wanted to do for quite a long time, and to do it together was a real treat. The problem with doing the beaches by way of public transit however is that if you don’t have a car, you have to go with tours, and it being off season the tours weren’t really running. By a stroke of luck I found a taxi service in Bayeux (yes of tapestry glory), that for a certain rate would take you to as many locations you wanted, dropping you off, letting you look around, and then off to the next spot (pretty sweet huh?)
When we got off the train at Bayeux, we saw the one taxi, knowing that the car was probably our ride. I had communicated with the company beforehand so they knew the whole trip and sha-bang, but it turns out our driver didn’t speak a lip of English. After our “hellos” the kind man stated he only spoke French…and so I had to go back into the anals of grade school to remember some French to say we just wanted to go into the town for half an hour. Counting in French on my hands like a 2nd grader, I was somehow able to get across that we would meet back up again with him at 11. Whew.
After a quick walk around the Bayeux Cathedral, which was absolutely towering and gorgeous, it was off to our nerdy and exciting adventure to the battlefields that we had read so much about. I’d like to add that most of the car conversation was quiet, besides me asking our wonderful driver, “Ca va?” to a chuckle by him saying,”Ca va bien.”
Our first stop was St. Mere-Eglise, site of a horrendous miscalculation by the Allies to land smack dab in the middle of the town, only to be butchered by Nazi troops. How lovely. A statue of a paratrooper caught on the town’s church steeple hung somberly, truly overpowering as the steeple was by far the tallest thing in the little town. But the great part of the area was the paratrooper museum that we got to go inside. Basically having the museum to ourselves, it was one of the most interactive WW2 museums I have seen. Max and I pretended to jump out of the paratrooper plan and were wonderfully surprised to find a whole scene set up making the museum participant really feel like they had just jumped out of the plane that night back in 1944.
Heading back in the cab we were feeling pumped, this was only the beginning! Our next stop took us to Utah beach…making one realize how long and wide these beaches actually were. Currently the scene was a beautiful beach you could find in Cape Cod, back then I have no idea how they were able to run that distance through blazing bullets and somehow make it past the beach head. There was no way. How the heck did they do it….
Pointe du Hoc was a little more sobering than the past two. I think this is where it really started to hit me that I was on ground where so many men had fallen. The thing about Pointe du Hoc, where the U.S. Rangers had battled to take out enemy guns to protect troops landing on the beaches, was that it had been left basically to rot in ruin. The ground was green but shelled, grass now covering the huge divots American bombs had made. Rusted barbed wire hung around some of the area, and the bunkers were all still there, bullet holes and all. It amazed me that some of these things had been untouched…sure there was the bunker overlooking the cliff that everyone was going around, but Max and I explored some in the back area that gave me the heebie jeebies. There were no lights, and having to use the flashlight on my camera the walls of these bunkers were clammy with paint chipping off. There was a part of me that thought a soldier could pop out any minute….realizing that’s how the ranger probably felt going into all these bunkers. The reality being the only threat to me was my imagination, where they actually had the possibility to face an enemy inside. As I observed the bullet holes all over the doorways, most of the time the possibility was real.
You would think that would be the highlight, Seamus being in shock at Pointe du Hoc. But no, it all culminated in an emotional whirlwind at none other than the fated Omaha beach. We only had an hour there, which probably was not enough…but the museum that they have you first go through was so powerful, first explaining what happened and then allowing you to sit in a sound area listening to veterans talk about what happen on June 6th, 1944. It was moving, hearing these men talk about their experiences at the same age we were, entering France very differently than we did (though Ryanair tried to make it the same experience). At the end of the museum is a beautiful memorial to those that we lost-a symbolic makeshift marker for a soldier that had died in the bloody beachhead of Omaha.
We walked down the cliff to the beach, and again I was met with the same feeling of “How the heck did they do this?” It just did not seem possible. The beach was huge and the cliff was hard to climb up with no one shooting at you. It just gave me more respect for the men who landed on Omaha….what an impossible task that somehow they accomplished. You don’t realize the true magnitude of the feat until your shoes are covered in sand and looking up you can see the old pill boxes above you.
Of course there was then the Omaha cemetery of Saving Private Ryan fame…which I feel we were a little rush on. I couldn’t help but be upset by the place. Going through the museum and seeing the beach itself, I was in the midst of its aftermath, surrounded by thousands of dead soldiers. The cab was quieter than usual when we left Omaha.
Okay brightening up here, the group was a little physically and emotionally drained from the whole experience, so after seeing some cool old German batteries, we told the driver to end the tour and we could drop off back in Bayeux. With a little time before our train would take us back to Paris, we wanted to catch something to eat. But France being France, nothing was open for dinner at 6pm except a divey burger/pizza/grill place similar to a storefront bodega. You should nothing of this except that I tried to order my hamburger in french with an accent and instead of sounding like a refined tourist I sounded like Steve Martin in the Pink Panther “Je voudrais un HAHMBEARGUEHRR”. The cashier gave me a confused look to which I responded with an “Um..a hamburger?” If his face didn’t say “Dumb Americans”, I don’t know what does.
Somehow, a good nap on the train completely refreshed us, and we were feeling some night activities. Well Gare du Nord is in close proximity to the Montmarte neighborhood, something I had read was a cool area to see…plus we could see Moulin Rouge on the way there!
Well, I had no absolutely NO IDEA the area that was around Moulin Rouge. Literally the pattern went like this: Peep show, Strip club, sex shop, Gyros eatery–repeat. There was also a McDonalds in the area making me think there was a lot of good stories from that place. Oddly enough at the tip of sexytown where we began was this little pastry shop where we had macaroons for the first time….again the typical “whoa” that you get from food in Paris. Having walked past Moulin Rouge and had enough, we started up the mountain that is Montmarte. The neighborhood had a great old cafe vibe about it…beautifully lit with tons of French folk hanging out at tables outside enjoying the night. We made it to the main thoroughfare and were enveloped by art shops, chocolate shops, and the occasional artist hoping to get some money for a quick portrait sketch. All of this led to Sacre Coeur, the beautiful pearl white cathedral overlooking the entire city. There was a sizable crowd on the steps below the church, as the view was one of my favorites. Of course there on the right the Eiffel Towered sparkled signifying another hour in Paris past. We agreed to go back to the area the next night, and enjoy one last great dinner.
Waking up in the morning, our last full day in Paris would be a good one. Again getting breakfast pastries at the bakery near our hostel, we then planned to have a picnic lunch…getting a fresh warm baguette for 60 cents (unbelievable deal) to save for the day ahead. Clamoring off the the metro we walked along the magnificent mile of Paris: The Champs Elysee. Though it was fun to walk through, this trip really wasn’t about shopping for handbags and dresses, and I was more focused on the Arc di Triumphe ahead. A quick tidbit for those students out there: the Arc di Triumphe observation deck is free for students if you can prove your visa, unlike the Eiffel Tower. Some of my classmates argued that it was actually a better view that the Tower, as you could see the grid system and see the Tour di Eiffel itself. From experience, the Arc was completely worth it…not paying anything we got to take pictures from a sweet view and they even have cameras as you are walking up showing the outside view below you.
Leaving the Arc it was time for our lunch picnic…under the Eiffel Tower! That’s right, we knew there was a park next to the famous monument so why not enjoy a lunch with a great view? We went to the grocery store and picked up cheeses, a couple meats, some chips, and to top it all off: a huge bottle of Orangina (as you cannot legally drink alcohol in the park)! Even though we did not go up to the top, it was a surreal feeling to be with the landmark. To actually see it with my own eyes up close was a better gift than any picture. We put our bags and a blanket down and ate to our hearts content, then basically laying down and listening to music like it was summer. Everything was so good….you could eat the cheese on its own but the combo of meat, cheese, and fresh baguette washed down by Orangina was a meal that could eat forever. The view wasn’t bad either. Max evoked his inner Gaugain and with a cigar in hand he sketched the Eiffel Tower for an art class he had back in Rome. The whole scene was very Parisian don’t you think? Good food, company, an artist in the midst, and the Eiffel Tower in full view. All of this was only ruined by the peddlers carrying metal Eiffel Towers on an iron chain as though they were keys in all different sizes. Unlike other European countries, they really came up to you close and tried to make a hard sell. This happened all over the city of course, and every time was a bit unnerving.
Waking from our nap of reverie the group had two different ideas of what to do next. Max, Adam, and Ish want to go find a cool hat for max in the Hotel de Invalides area, whereas I wanted to see all of my favorite Impressionists at the underrated Musee d’Orsay. So we decided to split up (reckon all my phone minutes had been used up from the events of the night before), and made the old fashioned plans of meeting back up at a certain time at a certain place. Jeff went with me to the Musee for a little bit, but then went to meet up with one of our other JForcers who was coming into the city for the day. So I had the Musee D’Orsay as my own personal experience. What that means is that most picture observations were fast paced but definitely thought about and cared for. All the artists I love–Van Gogh, Gaugain, Cezanne, Seurat, Renoir, LaTrec, Monet, and even Picasso were all there. It was the perfect Seamus McMahon art museum. But as I said before I do art museums quick on my own so I had seen mostly everything with a lot of time to spare. So I set off to explore the area around the museum, the converted train station, and found myself walking on the St. Germain Pres. Another character in Hemingway’s novel, I was pleasantly surprised to find a crepe cart, and stopped to have a delicious chocolate and banana crepe. Wow was that good…super gooey like a crepe should be and the chocolate being a perfect pairing with the fresh banana (see I told you I loved the food here). Walking through the Parisian side streets on my own was full of fun people watching…the old shopkeeper closing up like she had been for years, the young couple arguing about something that I couldn’t understand with the language barrier, though I had fun imagining a scenario in which the man had bought the WRONG cheese.
After a long walk I met back up with the hat afficianados and we left for dinner in Montmarte. Max was super excited for this dinner because his parents had told him to live it up and thus have whatever meal he wanted with them paying for everything. Well, the rest of us did not have that luxury so we opted for a still pricey but less pricey than what he was thinking restaurant on the square leading up to Sacre Coeur. As all of us were looking at the special deals that included three courses, Max studied the menu like a textbook–some frog legs looked good as the first dish. What he did not count on however, was that the restaurant was super busy, our waitress being the only one it seemed who was outside. So even though she was fun and flirty, Max never got the chance to order anything besides the frog legs. As the other three of us got the salad and meat dish after, the waitress would leave to another customer before he had the chance to order. You could tell he was getting a little upset. The tipping point was when our waitress brought out three deserts for those of us who had purchased the special AND the checks. Adam and I couldn’t help but laugh as the waitress left, as one could see smoke coming from Max’s ears. Here he was supposed to have this decadent meal and instead all he got were frog legs. So he made up his mind and told us angrily, “I’m going to get a crepe then.”
Again taking in the beautiful but sometimes broken bottle ridden steps of Sacre Coeur, we this time went down the long grand stair case to the bottom of the hill. What were hit with up arrival was an entire avenue of souvenir stores giving Times Square a run for its money. It was hopping too, tons of people going through the stores and low and behold at the end, a crepe stand! But this was not the kind of crepe stand on par with the one I went to on the St. Germain Pres….oh no, this was like one of the Gyros shops near the Moulin Rouge. As an immigrant man started to pour the crepe mix onto the burner, Adam and I watched as the man obviously did not really know how to make a crepe. To Max’s dismay, he completely burned it. Another one of the workers came up to the stand and apologized to Max saying that guy was new and still had a lot to learn. He then made the crepe himself putting chocolate on it as though Paris was under siege and this was the last bottle he had left. Adam and I started laughing as friends do as Max was not only utterly disappointed but upset about his crappy crepe. You would think after that whole experience none of us would dare go near that crepe stand again, but of course Ish felt he wanted a crepe too but this time as a nutella banana combo. The crepe process itself looked fine, except when the guy pulled out the banana. Half brown, the man didn’t seem to mind it’s colors nor care to cut it in slices putting it directly onto the crepe (though he did ace the amount of choclate this time). Thus we left the area with Max and his sad crepe, Ish with his cod-piece looking crepe, and the rest of us in silly laughter. As we waited for the Metro Ish blurted out,
“Oh man, I don’t feel so good.”
Illustrating for us that bad things truly do come in threes.
Leaving Paris was almost as hard as getting to it, as even though I was extra careful in printing out a confirmed ticket and bringing it to the airport shuttle, as the man scanned the code it read ERROR. My ticket literally had an error code on it. Great. It was 5 in the morning and no they did not let me on, I had to buy another bus ticket and send my grievance to the company and then they would get back to me in six months. An obvious ploy to not have any grievances. So there went another 20 Euro towards the Parisian economy. You’re very welcome Paris.
But besides that, Paris was awesome, definitely a place I hope to see again in my lifetime. There’s just so much left to explore there. It was also fun being on a “dude” trip, it just had a different vibe than traveling with only another person, family, etc. As you can tell from all the writing it was one of my favorite trips….and definitely one Max and I still talk about to this day.