From the Marais to the Eiffel Tower

Our hotel, the charming Hotel de la Bretonnerie, was nestled in the Marais, a district of Paris we specifically selected after some research. The narrow, cobblestone streets in the Marais is what all of old Paris used to look like; I read that there are more pre-revolutionary buildings and streets left intact in this district than in any other part of the city. It is very picturesque, with some incredible architecture, and well suited to exploring on foot, which is how we spent most of our time in Paris. In the fashionable Marais, there is an abundance of unique little boutiques with some excellent vintage shops, art galleries (including the Picasso Museum) and trendy bars and restaurants. A Jewish quarter with a growing gay presence, there was a great gay bar right across the street from our hotel, Spyce, that we went to late on our first night there. We met a Brazilian actor who had been living in Stockholm and did not find the Swedish to be friendly.

The quality of the vintage clothing I saw was impeccable. The well-heeled owners were just as stylish as their stores, bedecked in enviable mid-century frocks and red lipstick. I drooled over the dresses at Gilda Vintage and Mamz’Elle Swing, which were out of my budget, but picked up some affordable accessories at the latter store (35 Rue du Roi de Sicile), including a sparkly bow-shaped brooch, a red-and-camel striped purse, and a red striped headband. I still find myself dreaming about the gorgeous high-heeled spectator-style oxfords I spotted at Gilda Vintage (51 rue du Temple).

“They’re my own brand – I make them myself,” the owner told me.

The shoes cost around $150 Euro, which, sadly, I couldn’t afford, but if I ever return to Paris on a more sizable budget, to Gilda I will return.

Hilary and I were able to score some reasonably priced, distinctive pieces at some of the small boutiques we stumbled upon. I recommend Yi Ness and Acqua Reves, both on Rue Rambuteau, and Diwali at 26 Rue du Temple.

We noticed that the shops in Le Marais would open and close sporadically. There may as well be one sign in the district denoting, “Hours: Whenever.” Since we were trying to memorize landmarks to help us find our way around the neighborhood, this was occasionally disorienting; one place had rotisserie chickens basting outside on the sidewalk around 2 p.m., and as we passed it again at 4 p.m., the chickens had vanished and the business looked like it had been closed for days. A small paper plate was taped to the door of another shop we saw earlier on Monday afternoon that read, “Be back at 5.” Many of the stores opened in the mid-to-late afternoon and there were quite a few that didn’t open on Monday at all. This made perfect sense to me; I feel the same way about Mondays.

The best thing about the Marais is that everything we could possibly want was within walking distance. People-watching, exquisite restaurants, specialty shops of every kind; we sampled croissants, a quiche, macaroons. At a grocery store, we found that bottles of wine cost less than $4. We discovered delectable chocolat at Sylvain Mussy (8 Rue du Bourg-Tibourg) – the most incredible chocolate I’ve ever tasted. It was all within a few blocks of our apartment, a leisurely stroll in the sunshine.

SO WHAT?

Hilary had a French roommate at her first Buffalo apartment. I only met her a few times but one particular encounter proved unforgettable. My sister had just gotten a new, chin-length blunt bob, which wasn’t what she ordered. Hilary was worried that it made her face look excessively round – a condition we refer to as a “pie face” – and asked her roommate what she thought.

“So your face looks like a pie – so what?” the roommate replied. “Who cares? Wear a headband. It will grow back.”

We discovered that her reply basically summed up the Parisian attitude about everything. So what? Who cares? It was refreshing.

No one was losing their mind at a cafe because their elaborate espresso concoction had three flavor shots instead of two, or demanding a special low-fat salad dressing that must be included on the side. You ordered a coffee, they gave it to you and you drank it. “French” dressing is apparently no different from Dijon mustard and it was the same at every restaurant.

People wore what they wanted always looking effortlessly fabulous – and did what they wanted when they wanted to, including bringing their dogs inside any and all establishments, even a fancy chocolaterie. So what? Who cares?

This wonderful, carefree manner was such a contrast to the constant stressed-out existence Americans are accustomed to.

Here’s another thing we learned in Paris, also involving the word “what.” It’s a very useful communication tactic that we experienced countless times during our stay.

We’d ask a question. Their response would be a long pause. They would stare at us intently for a moment, as if we were from another planet. Then they would finally say: “What.” It was not so much a question, but a statement. Eventually, after attempting to repeat what we had just asked, they would respond to the query, and we would leave the exchange feeling like the most socially inept person who ever lived. We really got a kick out of this. Allow me to provide you an example of this technique:

I say, “Bonjour. I was wondering if you provided wake-up calls? We don’t have a clock so we wanted to see if we could get one for tomorrow morning.”

Long pause.

Intent stare.

“What.”

Try this if you ever feel you need to regain the upper hand during any interaction.

On one occasion – our first night in Paris – I was looking for a plug adapter, since the one I used in London didn’t work. We stopped into a pharmacy and since I’m used to one-stop convenience stores in America, I thought I might be able to find one. I described what I was looking for to an employee.

His first response was, “What.”

I attempted to explain what I meant for a second time.

He laughed and said, “Not in France.”

I will always wonder what he thought I meant.

THE EIFFEL TOWER EXPERIENCE

Aside from our initial moments in Paris, going to the top of the Eiffel Tower was the only stressful thing that we did. It was also one of the only times we were surrounded by obnoxious, pushy tourists, since we encountered few Americans in the Marais. These two elements are connected.

For the first time since our arrival, we took a taxi, as the Eiffel Tower was quite a long walk from our home base, the temperatures dropped to the 30s after dark and we wanted to see those famous lights. We also did not want to get lost and mugged. During the day, I always felt safe, but at night, the streets felt more sinister. I wasn’t wandering the streets like Owen Wilson in “Midnight in Paris,” which is how I envisioned it, but we are women, we are young and we are 4-foot-11. It’s different.

Seeing the Eiffel Tower approaching in the distance as our cab approached it, I could barely contain my giddiness. Even though we had already been in Paris for two days – it was our second night there, so just about two-thirds of our stay there was already over – we had not seen any of those famous, ubiquitous Parisian landmarks. The lights of the Eiffel Tower in the middle of the glittering city are breathtaking. It’s an unforgettable sight. After restricting ourselves to the odd, furtive photo during our Paris trip so far in order to not seem like tourists, we snapped away unabashedly as soon as the taxi dropped us off.

Two minutes later, we were already being accosted by aggressive peddlers trying to sell us gaudy souvenirs. We hadn’t even begun to wait in line for our tickets. (We ignored them).

At our dad’s suggestion, Hilary and I tried to purchase tickets online to avoid the extensive wait on site. Unfortunately, they only have a very limited quantity of them to purchase online, and they were already sold out. No matter, we thought. How bad could it be?

The line was extremely long. The air was freezing and the high winds made it feel even colder. There were many groups of ill-behaved American students, families and a pair standing behind us (for the duration of our Eiffel Tower visit) who chattered in Russian at maximum volume. All the while, the crowd in the queue seemed to believe that shoving into everybody would get them to the front of the line faster. Their method was highly ineffective, yet they persisted.

It took the better part of an hour for us to get our tickets. We were rewarded with a second line so that our bags could be searched. Signs and videos were everywhere in several different languages to alert us, “Watch out for pickpockets!” I clutched my purse tightly.

Then, we had to wait in a line for the elevator that took us to “the second floor.” We waited for about half an hour, since the elevator cannot hold many people. (All of this waiting is done without any protection from the cold. I was an icicle and had woken up that morning with an awful sore throat. Thank goodness for French cold medicine).

Everyone was packed in like sardines and shoving into each other. Once we arrived at the second floor, we got out to take photos and soak in the view, which was magnificent. After a few moments of enjoyment, the crowd was corralled into yet another line to take ticket-holders to the top of the tower. This was easily a 45-minute wait, as these elevators can hold even fewer sightseers.

Finally, we got to the top. Paris, the whole of it, was brilliantly on display. Every time we had to open a purse to take out our cameras, Hilary and I each took turns shielding the other from the massive crowd to serve as protection from unsavory characters. We posed for photos then spent a moment soaking in the city surrounding us.

Right at that moment, a woman nearby said to her two children, with her gaze fixed on us, “Watch out for pickpockets, kiddos.”

We looked at each other, wondering why we looked even remotely suspicious. Was one of us unknowingly wearing the unofficial uniform of a Parisian pickpocket? Did we look extremely, authentically French? We opted to believe the latter option and decided to wear it as a badge of honor.

To get back down to the bottom, there was another line to wait in. I’d estimate that it took half an hour. I was looking forward to getting back on the ground. Hilary and I were planning to go to a jazz club that night and although we left the hotel at around 7:30 p.m., it seemed like it was getting late. With no cell phones or watches, we had no idea how much time had passed.

To our dismay, the elevator only took us to the second floor. Given the size of the line to take that elevator, we knew we’d be waiting for at least 20 to 30 minutes. The crowd was becoming increasingly pushy, with numerous individuals forcing the person in front of them to be squished up against the next person. I would not recommend any of this to the claustrophobic.

After a few false starts, at long last, the elevator arrived and took us to the bottom. Hailing a cab was a struggle.

We were exhausted so we decided to call it a night and get an early start the next day, since it would be our final one.

At the hotel, we checked the time. It was shortly after midnight. We had been there for about four hours! During that time, perhaps 5 or 10 minutes total were spent enjoying the Eiffel Tower, and the rest waiting in the bitter cold. I’m happy I got to do it, but I wouldn’t do it again.

AU REVOIR

For our last night in Paris, we went back to the restaurant, Le Verre Luisant, that we stumbled upon on our first night in town. It had been our best meal: roasted chicken with the most incredible French fries, accompanied by wine, bread and dessert. The menus were formatted like faux newspapers. It was also very affordable.

Next, we decided to go the jazz club we had to forego the previous night. I did research beforehand and discovered there were three excellent clubs on the rue des Lombards. When we arrived, a show was just about to begin at Le Baiser Sale. It was the Rafael Paseiro Trio, Cuban-infused contemporary jazz.

We were the only Americans in the club; the waitress only spoke French, so Hilary’s skills came in handy. Between sets, we chatted with a very friendly jazz aficionado who was originally from Ghana but lived in Paris since he was young. He showed us a card he had that gave him access to all of Paris’s jazz clubs. He spoke very little English, so Hilary translated.

We got back to our hotel quite late, with only four or five hours to sleep before we had to get to the airport. Luckily, we had the foresight to pack everything that afternoon, with our favorite French reality show, “Des Anges,” (Angels) on the television in the background.

It was difficult to sleep, both of us anxious about the long day of travel ahead of us and worried that our wake up call wouldn’t come. I tossed and turned. At one point, it sounded as if Hilary had gotten up and was rummaging through her suitcase, sorting through her shopping bags and knocking something off the table. I opened my eyes for a second – I’m practically blind without my contacts – and it looked like Hilary was up and around the room; I wished she would stop making all that noise. I drifted off again.

In the morning, I asked Hilary what the heck she was doing in the middle of the night.

“I didn’t get up,” she said. “I was lying in bed, terrified, while I heard footsteps followed by someone going through my suitcase and knocking my purse off the table. It wasn’t near the edge, either.”

We looked at each other, horrified. Apparently, our room might have been haunted, but we decided we were fortunate in having discovered this in our final hours there.

Hurriedly, we got dressed, scooped up our belongings and scurried down to the lobby to wait for the taxi.

It was still dark as we sped through the city. I tried to memorize every street and every building as we drove by. Reluctantly, we had to bid Paris adieu.

April Diodato is the OBSERVER Lifestyles Editor. Send comments to adiodato@observertoday.com