Knocking a Few More Things Off the List

First, a Rest Day

We needed a rest day. After a long and awesome week of tourist activities, our brains needed a break. Julien and Michelle kindly offered to let us stay at their place while they were on vacation, and they were supposed to leave today, but were delayed by train problems. There had been a bad train wreck south of Paris a few days before, and the cleanup and investigation was still ongoing. That was the direction Julien and Michelle would be headed, so they had to figure out an alternative way to get there besides the train.

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Some random gargoyles

After sleeping in, we met up with Sheila for some delicious Asian food in our new neighborhood on the left bank. She and Austin had returned the night before from their cruise and we gave them their apartment back and the key. Each restaurant we went to was not open for continuous service. Many places shut down in the afternoon to change out the menu. We had just had Vietnamese food a few nights before so we walked right past Pho 14 (yes, there are so many that they are numbered). But our path eventually led back to this delightful gem and we had the best Pho we ever had! Pho if you don’t know is a wonderful Vietnamese noodle soup and is amazing! It was great to catch up with Sheila, hearing about her experiences in Italy and Croatia on her cruise, and telling her about our experiences in Paris.

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We left Sheila, and headed back to Julien and Michelle’s apartment and chilled out. The four of us ordered in (pizza; four different kinds) and debated which movie to watch. We settled on Boy. Have you heard of it? We hadn’t, but we recommend it. It is an independent film from New Zealand and had a great sound track and dialogue. Oh, and the pizza was really delicious. You could taste the distinct flavors of all of the different cheeses used in the four cheese pizza!

Montparnasse, Luxembourg Gardens, Street Skate

IMG_3560The skyline of Paris is world famous. Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Elysees, Montparnasse… wait, Mont par what? It happens to tourists all of the time. You’re looking out at the city from the top of Parc de Belleville or the steps of Sacre Coure and you see old buildings and older buildings and the Eiffel Tower and strange new buildings like the Pompidou. And then you see a giant, ugly, out of place skyscraper. That’s Montparnasse.

IMG_1298Parisians hate it too, but there’s one big plus. Thanks to the 1970s architecture, we have an awesome building to see Paris from and the building of course disappears from the skyline if you’re on it. We paid top euro for this much famed view. Unfortunately, it was a bit hazy at the top of this 60-story monstrosity. You’re pretty far south of the main city and so while we liked the view, we preferred the view we’d seen from the top of the Arc de Triomphe. There was one additional point of interest though: the window washers. There’s a contraption that the window washers can operate to drop themselves down and around the outside of the skyscraper. No thanks!

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From the top of Montparnasse, we descended Europe’s fastest elevator and headed off to the catacombs. The catacombs span many miles under Paris and many people go hang out in the tunnels, mostly illegally. Young people on adventures and secret clubs that pop up for a few hours.

But then there is an official entrance – a tourist attraction that everyone told us that we had to see. It’s always busy for many reasons, but two would be that there is no sun and is under ground so it is nice and cool. The other reason is that a few centuries ago the city officials decided to make more room for living people by emptying the cemeteries and placing the bones underground and arranging them in various ways. So that sounds weird, but also cool.

As it turns out, the line was way too long and we decided to come back another day, to get there earlier before it opened.

IMG_1316We headed toward the Pantheon to see Foucault’s pendulum (a giant pendulum that reveales the rotation of the earth by the way it’s orbit shifts) but it was undergoing restoration… for the next three years! It’s supposed to be a pretty cool building inside with Victor Hugo and other famous people buried there, but we decided to skip it.

Instead we grabbed sandwiches and headed to the nearby Luxembourg garden. This is a giant city park that may be familiar to many people for its famous pond where you can sail the little sailboats. It’s pretty cool: young kids (mostly) push their rented little boats off of one side of the pond with sticks and then joyously watch it cross the pond with the help of the wind. A boat almost was stuck under a fountain’s waterfall in the middle; it submerged and then came out the other side. Nathan loved watching this process unfold and said he would definitely be doing that if he were a child here. After eating we walked around the park watching Parisians soaking in the sun, or lounging in the shade, or even playing chess.

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IMG_1344We had yet to see the inside of Notre Dame, so we headed over to Our Lady of Paris after lunch only to be overwhelmed by yet another long line. We watched a few minutes to see how fast it would go and it wasn’t a bad wait at all; about 10 minutes and we were in. The first thing we noticed was how dark it was compared to the other churches like Sainte Chapelle, whose walls are 75% stained glass. Once our eyes adjusted to the dim light, we found a seat and just sat back and enjoyed the peace and beauty of this incredible cathedral. It’s huge, with bursts of light from the stained glass far above, very impressive and mysterious but we missed the glorious light of Sainte Chappelle.

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St. Denis holds his head in his hands, miraculously alive after being beheaded.

Amy had been invited to another street skate by Eloise, but this time she was prepared for the streets of Paris with all of her gear. She met the girls at Gare de Lyon and the heat was intense even at 7 pm! Every few minutes looking up at cool stuff in Paris was very surreal. Oh, there’s a famous building; and another one. It was awesome. It was tough to keep up with these girls. Amy had no idea how long they would be skating – it ended up being about two hours in all. Their skating ability and stamina were awesome and Amy is inspired to join in more trail skates at home. She felt it really helped her skating to see all of the places and obstacles they encountered on every skate. Inspiration!

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Nate cooked a delightful curried lentils and potatoes and we called it a night. We were determined to get a good sleep and get up early to get in line for the catacombs.

A Hard Day followed by a Refreshing Day

A Hard Day

Saturday was a hard travel day, but it ended well. Listen to our audio account in two parts:

Part 1 and Part 2

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Above: Look Joel, a giant Babybel! Wine tasting at a little spot near the Palais Royal (small batches from local producers). Amy on one of the many “love lock” bridges that always crop up in cities.

Emblematic of how we felt near the end of the day
Emblematic of how we felt near the end of the day

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All we needed was a good one-two punch of hospitality and friendship 🙂

A Refreshing Day

After our tough travel day Saturday, Sunday turned out to be really positive and refreshing. In the morning, we went to the “American Church” – yes, that’s what they call it on the map. It is near the American University in Paris, which may be why it’s called that. It’s a pretty old church… there are 50,000 expats living in Paris and for many, the church is the heart of their community. It may be the “American” church, but the pastor said well over 50 nations were represented in the congregation.

We went to the traditional service, which felt like a traditional Methodist or Presbyterian service; hymns, pipe organ, choir, doxology, scripture readings, sermon, offering, etc. It felt great to be in church. In all of our travels, this is the first time we’ve gone to church while abroad. The service was very welcoming and international in its focus, reflecting the international audience. And it wasn’t watered down, with the ultimate focus directed at our need for Christ both within the church as we love our brothers and sisters, and outside the church as we love the world. Specific time was devoted to praying for peace amidst the recent violence in Egypt.

The reason why we chose the traditional service is that there was a coffee hour afterwards, where we were able to mingle with some people. We talked with a young couple – an American woman who had been living in Paris for a year and her French boyfriend. After church, one of the church members stood outside where people were leaving and made sure everyone knew where they were going and gave suggestions if they didn’t. He told us we were very close to the Eiffel Tower, so we decided to go there.

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So, it turns out the Eiffel Tower is tall. And impressive. There are many places in Paris where you just turn a corner or get to the top of a staircase and turn around, and there it is. It is quite magnificent. We bought a crepe and sat down near the base to eat it, then walked around taking photos. Today was just about basking in the glory of the tower; we’ll return and go up it before we leave Paris.

Sidebar: Paris Scam Alert!! It amazes me that these scams are still active, as they are well documented in every travel book about Paris. The one that seems to be popular around the Eiffel Tower is the “survey scam”. Young people, usually in pairs, will come up to you and ask very sweetly and mournfully, “Do you speak English?” or sometimes just “You speak English?” and then try and get you to sign some sort of petition for the rights of the blind, mute and deaf (or insert other cause here). If you speak English and don’t help them, they accost you with pleas for help. We’re not exactly sure what the scam is – maybe if you sign, your hands are occupied and someone else is going through your bags or pockets. Other times they’ll just flat out ask for money. Either way, the easiest thing to do is either ignore them or say “Non” and keep walking.

IMG_3378Near the Eiffel Tower is a little street that Rick Steves loves (we have his Paris guidebook) called Rue Cler. We decided to check it out, and even though it was Sunday and half the shops were closed, it was still quaint and charming. We ate lunch at a cafe – giant salads. The French cafe version of a salad is a huge bowl with a bunch of meat and cheese, and a few leaves of lettuce and other assorted vegetables. A hefty amount of food with sometimes incongruous pairings of ingredients (to an American, at least).

In the late afternoon, after our lengthy Parisian lunch, we headed to the Musee d’Orsay. The first Sunday of the month, many museums around Paris are free. So, the lines are long and sometimes they close the museums early if they are “overcrowded”. This was announced at the d’Orsay as we were standing in line, but the line was moving quickly and we made it inside. Faced with less than an hour, we decided to head straight for the 5th floor to the Impressionist exhibit. The d’Orsay itself is quite an impressive building, as it used to be a train station. There is a huge amount of art (many sculptures of Rodin-he donated his entire art collection to the state and so you can find amazing Rodin everywhere, more on him in later posts) and we just passed by most of it on our way to enjoy the brilliant collection of paintings by Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh, Pisarro, Seurat, and many more. Impressionism, neo-impressionism, cubism, pointillism… lots of the isms that we enjoy.

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After the d’Orsay closed we walked along the Seine and stopped for a happy hour drink near the statue of St Michael. Then we walked to Notre Dame to check out the exterior and get some beautiful photos as the sun moved lower in the sky. Finally, a late dinner back at the apartment closed out our Sunday nicely.

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Orlando to Amsterdam

We always forget how difficult traveling is. We always forget how wonderful it is.

About two weeks ago, we picked out all of our clothing for our month-long European adventure. We then proceeded to “test drive” some of our outfits as we ran errands around Orlando. After laying everything out, including all of Amy’s roller derby gear (she’ll be skating with the Paris Rollergirls), we saw that it wouldn’t all fit in our two backpacks, small shoulder bags and ukulele gig bag. So we cut down our clothing allowance – again – and managed to get everything packed with a little bit of room to spare.

Matching on purpose :)
Matching on purpose 🙂

There’s just something about getting on an airplane with all of your things strapped to your back and having to shove it all in the overhead compartment. It’s sort of stressful, sort of invigorating. You don’t know if there will be room when you get to your seat; if there is room, you don’t know if someone will get mad when they come in after you and can’t find a spot for their stuff.

Everyone knows sleeping on an airplane is terribly difficult. This was true for us as well, taking the redeye from Orlando to Dublin, followed by a short flight to Amsterdam. We ended up in an exit row seat, which was a double edged sword. Nathan had lots of leg room (plus!) but we were right behind the galley (minus!) so it was light and loud pretty much the whole night.

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This is what a redeye does to Nathan
This is what a redeye does to Nathan
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Hey look at that, 407!

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Our number one mission when we got to Amsterdam was to find a prepaid SIM card for the iPhone we brought. We were not successful. After wandering around the airport and then the Amsterdam Central Station for awhile, we decided to just call AT&T’s international help number and see what fees we’d be facing if we used text messaging. Turns out it’s not that terrible… incoming messages are essentially free (they count towards our normal plan limit) and outgoing messages are $0.50/msg. So we texted our host in Amsterdam (Jasper, a friend we made via CouchSurfing the last time we were here, in 2008) and he met us at the train station close to his apartment.

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Bikes and ridiculously small cars

We wanted to sleep. But we didn’t. Instead, after catching up a bit with Jasper, we went grocery shopping, picking up some snacks, breakfast and lunch food, and food to grill out at the party we were going to tag along to.

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Jasper has an amazing park a short walk from his apartment, called Flevopark. We walked up to a big group of young people grilling food, playing games and just enjoying the spectacular weather. The park was filled with young and old and everyone in between, enjoying life. No cars – everyone came on bikes. The great thing about the Netherlands for two Americans who speak no Dutch is that almost everyone speaks impeccable English!

We hit a volleyball around in a group and played a game called “Werewolf” (basically, “Mafia”, for those folks who know what that is). The sun did not seem to want to set. It was 10pm and it was still incredibly bright outside. The sun set at about 11pm and was up again at 5:15am (when we briefly woke up).

Hanging out with locals in a beautiful park, cooking good food, was a perfect way to start our trip.

The City of Lights

We’re deep in research mode for our upcoming trip to Paris this summer. Watching Rick Steve’s TV show and reading his guidebook (he loves Paris and we’ve had good experiences with his suggestions), perusing Airbnb, VRBO and CouchSurfing for accommodations options, and hitting up friends and family for suggestions. Also keeping an eye on plane ticket prices. They’re expensive this year… probably $1,400 per person.

Do you have a favorite neighborhood in Paris you like to stay in?