The Decadence of Paris, France: Escargot, Friends, and Catacombs

My first impression of Paris was rough. A massive line at the metro (subway) ticket machine greeted us as we exited the bus station. We opted to ride Lime scooters, fully encumbered by our combined 70+ pounds of bags, to our Airbnb. The route took us through some gritty areas where I was not inclined to pause to look at the map and not somewhere we would have wanted to stop. We made it, though, and the visit only went more positively from there.

Example of us being “American”

Parisian culture is one that Hannah and I would characterize as “aggressive” in some ways and subdued in others. A middle-aged man carrying a scooter in one hand and his young son in the other elbowed my wife out of the way getting on to the subway. Riders pushed through crowds or edged strategically toward the scarce seats. Drivers honked illegally and gratuitously while still meters away from lagging pedestrians crossing at the crosswalk ahead of them. Yet there was also introspection and kindness regularly occurring. Numerous subway riders carried pocket sized books and engrossed themselves in it during their commute home. I watched others make polite conversation and share laughs with total strangers. On our first morning, Hannah and I needed tickets for the subway, but the entrance we used had no ticket office or machine. With a quick “how to say ‘where is the ticket office?’” on Google, I tried my hand, or rather my mouth, at French to a nice family of 3. The woman kindly smiled and replied (not that I understood it) and nudged her husband to walk back up the subway stairs and give us directions. With their gracious help, we found the office and continued onward with our day. I had read prior to the trip that, even if you cannot speak it, the French appreciate an effort at assimilation. I expected a level of contempt for us as Americans but overall encountered either hospitality or indifference.

Turn volume up for an ASMR Eiffel Tower experience of my wife chewing a baguette…

We spent a special evening with a friend we made along the trip. In Bucharest, Romania, Hannah and I shared a meal at a former, historic caravansary after our walking tour with a woman named Annabelle. She was on vacation at the time and told us to contact her when we got to Belgium and France. She recommended a traditional French restaurant with the name “Le Bouillon Chartier”. With her encouragement, we tried two different appetizers: herring and escargot (snails). I never thought I would venture into that territory, but they were surprisingly alright. The butter and garlic made the snails tasty and the texture was not much different from other seafood. I did make one guffaw though. I tried to continue the adventure and order andouillette, which is a traditional sausage filled with various leftover innards and intestines. I love sausage, but the smell was pungent and texture was too much. Annabelle graciously laughed it off and encouraged this silly American to order a new entrée.

After dinner, she took us to Le Republique where many protests and marches begin. She explained that in Paris protests are part of the culture and almost every weekend a protest can be found somewhere in the city and many people regularly attend different events. Along the walk, she showed us the clubs and bars that are trendy. She pointed out a specific fashion of building façade and the man it was named after, explaining he was responsible for tearing up the streets of Paris to widen them for army access to suppress unrest. We also learned from her that horn honking is illegal in Paris unless for an emergency, and that the city can be dangerous. She was a wealth of knowledge on history, current events, law, and pop culture. Her next endeavor is to start her own lobbying firm concerned with feminism, and with her personality and intelligence, Hannah and I both agreed that she will find success. We enjoyed this second meeting even more than the first, and we bid her goodbye under the soft yellow glow of Paris’ streetlights and headed home.

This is the real work of art. Hundreds of people lined up to take a front and center shot of Ms. Lisa.

One of our very first full days started with the Louvre. Entering its courtyard, the glass pyramid signaled to me that we were in the right place. It is funny, but I imagined it to be larger than it was, I blame the Dan Brown books and movies for that. With shoes squelching from rain and missteps in puddles, Hannah and I put on our best “sophisticated art connoisseur” faces and began to critique the priceless paintings and sculptures. You see, I know something of art. I purchased a few hand painted canvasses on a cruise ship dock in Belize years ago… Kidding about the connoisseur part. We flipped the map around several times like a National Lampoon’s vacation and eventually followed the surge of crowds to the Mona Lisa. Underwhelming. As I entered the room, I gazed past the 75 person crowd in line to see her, and then squinted harder as I darted my eyes through the maze of phones held aloft to catch pictures over their heads, before finally seeing the small frame and the famed dame. Hannah asked if I’d like to get in line for the once in a lifetime opportunity, which I skeptically and quickly declined with a guffaw. Instead, we went to the line’s exit and stared at it from the side. It worked just fine. I could have easily spent days in the museum, but several hours are all that we had.

I wanted to write a quick note on cultural and historical representation in museums. Next time that you are in one, look at the cultural disposition of the hardest to reach exhibits. In this case, I wanted to visit the Oceania and Pacific exhibits as well as the Islamic and Eastern sections. They were nearly impossible to navigate to. In fact, it required going up or down stairs in the middle of corridors or exhibits to get to their isolated wings. We never even made it to the Oceania one as the path to it resembled a Super Mario dungeon level to even stand a chance. The Islamic section was mostly empty of guests, and short on art compared to other sections, but nonetheless incredible. It boasted one particular exhibit that contrasted the spread of Islamic empire through its historic golden age to that of Napoleon’s “conquest”. From far east to China, north to Russia, west to North Africa and Spain, and south to India, the various tribal empires were massive. Our western concept of history hardly touches any of this, and it is truly a shame due to the fact that some of this directly influenced European and eventual American history through trade and the Silk Roads. Anyway, enough with my soapbox, it was neat.

As darkness descended upon the city, Hannah and I queued up outside the entrance to the Paris catacombs. My expectation was a tourist trap with a handful of preserved bones, but I was wrong. The labyrinth of tunnels beneath the busy streets held rows and rows of skulls, arm, and leg bones. Some were tossed about in piles, while others had ceremoniously been used to craft artistic displays of religious piety. The tunnels had originated as quarry paths so workers could access the rich limestone deposits that built much of Paris. Over time, the densely urban city began to run out of room to house the dead, or were doing so in sub-healthy conditions. The catacombs as we know it today began to take shape, as a mass graveyard.

We walked the boulevards of Paris with baguettes, croissants, and quiche. One afternoon, we ate at a special restaurant called “Le Chalet Savoyard” which specializes in fondue and raclette. We chose the raclette. The best description is this: a wheel of French cheese cut in half and put beside a space heater. The insides become gooey and oozes cheese out onto your plate, which is filled with an assortment of potatoes, pickled onions, cold cut meats, and pickles. We ate our weight in cheese and walked away, conferring in hushed tones about the naming of our first dog as “fromage”.

Another day we visited Versailles and it was a dumpster fire of an adventure. The metro was packed like sardines and the subsequent train station was unclear on what direction to take or which train to hop on due to construction. Once we arrived at the palace, a line snaked through the courtyard in 4 layers. It took about 2 hours of waiting to finally enter the palace. Once inside, it was opulent and shoulder to shoulder traffic with other tourists. One gallery, the Hall of Battles, was closed intermittently and I continually went to check on it and repeatedly received contradictory reports of it being open and closed by different staff members. It was frustrating, especially because the tickets were $18. It was still a good experience to have gone, and I enjoyed the audio tour, but if on a vacation, I would pay for “skip-the-line” tickets next time. …Hannah had already seen the palace and planned to spend the time in the gardens which are usually free, but upon arrival we learned that they were not free that day (we either saw an old schedule online or misread it) so she roamed around town disappointed.

Our final day in Paris was one of my favorites. Hannah and I made a friend named Caleb during our very first stop in Athens, Greece. He moved to Paris from Michigan during our trip and we stayed in touch. He and his girlfriend, Freya, suggested a sunset picnic, and that seemed like a perfectly Parisian thing to do. We met up under the Eiffel Tower just as the lights were turning on and ate various cheeses, bread, fruit, and hummus. The evening grew colder and darker as we discussed their lives in Paris and our trip as well as some of the funny differences that contrast between French and American culture. The tower’s light show occurs every hour and after seeing its 3rd or 4th iteration, we all knew it was getting late and reluctantly packed up to part ways.

Not my work, but appropriate considering the above photo.


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