August 6th, 2009 11:52 EST
Adventures in Cheese Snob Land: My First Full Day in France
I can summarize my first full day in France with the following phrases: rental bicycles, the National Mosque, free garden, Champs-ElysÃ©es, Orangina, and the Eiffel Tower. Granted, these are not the most descriptive terms and even after scribbling several paragraphs, I will still only be able to provide the gist of what I did that magical day, but, hey, I`m traveling. I`m here to enjoy the distinctively European sights and smells, not stare at a computer for hours for hours on end. I can do that in Arlington or Richmond (and, believe me, I will because I`m certain several essays, poems, short stories, and scripts will come out of this trip. For all the time and money I`m spending, I better soak up some decent creative inspiration.)
I got up and ate breakfast, which is standard all over the world I`m fairly sure. My group went down to the hostel cafeteria, where a modest buffet awaited us. I stabbed two thin slices of ham, a square of cheese, a hard-boiled egg, and a buttery croissant for my petite plate. Let`s just say that even in a hostel, the humblest of tourist lodgings, the croissants were still yummier than any I`ve eaten in the United States. Take that, Costco.
During breakfast, we all whined about our beds, the lack of air conditioning (which they apparently don`t believe in here), and attempted to agree upon a place to go. Our professor is remarkably permissive and tries to let us decide where to go and what to do rather than imposing too many rules and schedules upon us. Bon choix, Madam. We eventually went with our teacher`s suggestion of renting bikes in Boulogne, this gorgeous version of Rock Creek Park or Central Park. We walked over to the Metro, which was fairly boring until we reached the above-ground tracks. Suddenly blah became bam-bam. I`ve never seen so many beautiful apartment buildings all in one place before. Not even all of Northwest Washington is pretty; but what I witnessed looked just like scenes out of "Love in the Afternoon." All of the apartments had iron-wrought balconies, which residents often decorated with red and pink flowers. Paris is definitely going on my possible post-graduation living locations now that I`ve seen what the average apartment looks like. The architecture especially impresses me at this point in my life because it was only a few months ago that my boyfriend, sister, and I searched for renting space in Richmond, since we lucked out in the campus room draw. It should go without saying but most Richmond apartments cannot compare. What I also appreciated about the above ground Metro was glimpsing the Eiffel Tower, just like that. Nothing special if you`re Parisian, but then again that`s the same way the White House and the Capitol strike most Washingtonians.
I want to say that we got to Boulogne with no problem, but while that may have been true for the rest of the group, it was not true for me. I broke a sandal just walking there, not running or skipping. Fortunately my professor had an extra pair of shoes and even more fortunately, they fit me perfectly. Even if they didn`t quite match my outfit, I was very grateful! If she hadn`t had them, I would`ve walked barefoot to one of the expensive gift shops nearby in search of shoes.
Once we arrived at Boulogne, we rented bikes and took off for two nearby lakes. The designated bike paths were scary, though. They contained steps and plenty of bumps, which made me question whether they were bike paths at all. Several times, I thought we had somehow come across a walking path, but our map showed otherwise. It wasn`t too much of a hassle, however; my enthusiasm for being in a country I`ve wished to visit for years trumped all else. The foliage was much lusher than I would have expected for the middle of the city and water always seemed nearby.
Of course, we had to eventually stop. We were tired and hungry, so we went to a roadside stand for lunch. The majority of us ordered a sandwich called Three Cheeses/Trois Fromages. I should have asked what type of cheese the sandwich contained, but it`s too late now. To all of our chagrin, goat cheese was melted in there. And if you`ve never had goat cheese, well, it tastes like a petting zoo smells. As much as I paid, though, I had to stomach it. The bread almost compensated for all else. It was wonderfully toasted--slightly crunchy on the outside but warm and soft on the inside. Upon finishing our sandwiches, we biked back to the rental stand and prayed for a nearby restroom...not that we had much success in that arena.
France doesn`t seem to have as many public restrooms as we do in the United States. My family and I have driven to California from Virginia for two separate vacations already, so I know that the U.S. is the land of toilets. Not only are they available, but they are free. France is not quite so generous. Basically, if you need to pee, you have to pay in one form or another. Go back to your hotel or buy a cup of coffee at a cafÃ©, but don`t expect businesses to just wave you into their restrooms if you`re doing the "I gotta go" dance. Because they won`t.
We ended up using the toilet at our hostel instead. After biking for nearly two hours, we were ready to "go home," take showers, and peacefully nap. I was never happier to see the Kellermann bathroom, which certainly says a lot about my exhaustion level. To put it mildly, the bathroom is...cramped. You may be familiar with the British expression "water closet," which aptly applies to the tiny space I had to squeeze into in order to wash the few parts of my body that I could. It was hard because there was not even a foot`s distance between the toilet and the shower, and the sink controls the shower head. In other words, it`s impossible to bring in your towel and fresh set of clothes without getting them wet. If you put the clothes on the toilet seat, they get soaked. If you put them in the sink, they get soaked. There is no counterspace, only a little ledge directly attached to the mirror. Even your toothpaste tube feels claustrophobic there. You either have to leave your clothes on your bed and ask your roommates to pass them to you when you`re done showering or simply shower when your roommates are not present so you can get dressed at your bed.
Anyway, I took my shower and got dressed up because my professor placed a reservation at a local restaurant called Le LibertÃ© (not "La LibertÃ©.) My strapless dress had a gold, silver, and copper sequined top and a black skirt that came down to about my knees. My classmates were surprised that I only paid $4 for it at a thrift shop (magasin d`occasions) in Arlington. Such prices seem impossible to find in Paris, though I may run into a bargain or two at the open-air market in La Rochelle.
Sometime between showertime and dinnertime, I had a spare hour and a half. I persuaded another student who currently wasn`t doing anything to visit the National Mosque with me. My taxi driver from the day before had mentioned it, so I thought, hey, why not? On our way from the stop to the mosque, we passed by a place called "Jardin des Plantes," which means "The Garden of Plants." Last time I checked, gardens traditionally contained plants, but I guess the French don`t mind stating the obvious or being redundant. (To its credit, the garden was an oasis.) What was even more bizarre, however, was the mosque. Part of the building was a restaurant and the other part belonged to an Islamic institute. My favorite part about it was the giant sign on the side that read "Snacks." Tacky.
Dinner at Le LibertÃ© was pleasant but slow. Coming from an urban environment in what I sometimes think is the most uptight country in the world, I`m used to fast service. Seems like speed`s a concept they`re not too familiar with in France, which can either be frustrating or relaxing depending upon the situation. The roadside stand where we had lunch was slow, as well, but I wasn`t too hungry then so it didn`t bother me. But Le LibertÃ© was so slow that they didn`t even bring out the menus until after we asked for drinks and I was starving. I ordered a steak Ongulet with potatoes and lettuce, as well as chocolate cake and Orangina (basically carbonated orange juice). Originally, I was going to order Tartare--then I discovered that it`s RAW steak. That`s right, like sushi, only beef instead of fish. For the sake of my health, I went with the COOKED steak instead. With salmonella and Mad Cow disease as possible threats, I`d rather be prudent about what I stick in my mouth. Call me paranoid but I made a good choice. The steak was great and the cake was even better. My classmates and I had fun talking, too--one girl in my group mentioned the time she came to France and her water described veal as "le petit moo" [the little moo].
After dinner, two other students and I immiedately caught the Metro and did the standard tourist thing: the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the Champes-ElysÃ©es. It was at that last item that I saw the fanciest McDonald`s of my life, including two elaborate staircases. I took far too many photos throughout the night, mainly because I was too cheap to buy anything in the gift shops. Who needs a mini Tour Eiffel that glows in the dark, anyway?