Sunday, January 7, 2018

Paris, The End of the Journey

To really bring my trip full circle, I met up with my friend Andrew in Paris (the one whom I visited in Lyon during my first week of the trip), and his friend Stephany graciously agreed to host us.

First stop were the Catacombs, or a giant underground collective "ossuary," or rather, holding place for bones. The cemeteries in the city began running out of room after centuries of use and were causing real problems - one named Les Innocents caused a neighboring building to collapse from the weight of so many dead. Also, much of the limestone used to build the oldest parts of the city was extracted using a mining technique which used wells as access points to dig horizontally, which meant that there were many undiscovered open mines. The same police prefect was in charge of finding and reinforcing old mines as was responsible for solving the cemetery problem, and thus was born the idea of an enormous underground mortuary.

Walking through the catacombs is eerie. The bones are stacked in decorative arrangements, but we realized these were just a pleasant "front" if you will - if you look behind the closest stack, the stacks of bones extend all the way back against the wall. The tunnels are spacious and it takes a few minutes to walk through all of them, so you can imagine that there are a lot of bodies - a few million, actually. Then there's the creepy sensation that if you back up, you accidentally brush up against a lot of dead people.

That night, Stephany asked if we would like to go out with a few of her friends. I was really excited about the possibility, because I hadn't gone out much as a solo traveler. We met up at a grungy-cool bar with super cheap drinks, and I nodded along politely while everyone chatted in French. They all spoke at least some English, but it's easier for anyone to speak their native language, so I decided it would be an evening of people watching. Once it was past midnight, I admitted to Andrew that I was sleepy and he said he'd suggest going home.

The conversation went a bit like this:
Andrew: "Hey guys, it's been a lovely evening, what do you think about going home?"
Everyone else: "Nonsense, let's keep drinking!"
Andrew: "But doesn't it sound nice to get some sleep?"
Everyone else: "Hey, we have a great idea, let's go drink at Stephany's!"
Andrew: "Or we could go to bed."

Of course, we bought more alcohol and everyone returned to Stephany's for "just one or two drinks, really chill." And, as my wise friend Mira says, it's the chill nights that end up being the craziest. American drinking games ensued, played with wine (for them once the cheap beer ran out, for me the entire time because Celiac). A glass was broken, the neighbors knocked on the door, and I fell asleep on the couch around 4:30 am. The next morning was hell. I think it took me an hour to eat my oatmeal, and then we had to clean. We even washed all the Solo cups, because they are much more expensive and hard to come by there. It was a mental game of doing just this one thing, and then the next, and all the time fooling yourself with just the task at hand until eventually it all gets done.

We then went out to explore Montmartre, a formerly seedy and now hipster central neighborhood. We also walked down the Champs de Elysees lit up by Christmas lights and visited the central Christmas market. There was even a giant lit-up electric sleigh that Santa "flew" over the crowd. Then we all hugged goodbye. I'm still not sure how we became such good friends in a short amount of time, but I'll always fondly remember that weekend in Paris.

My flight home wasn't until Thursday, so I had three days to explore Paris on my own. Monday I went to the Louvre, as everyone does. It was truly massive, and to be honest, a little overwhelming. It wasn’t super crowded, which was nice, but I found that there was so much to look at that I felt stressed I couldn’t see it all, or even a portion of it. Plus, it wasn’t as much my style of art.

Yep, Mona Lisa
I did see the Mona Lisa, because it’s practically obligatory, and I still can’t figure out why people make such a big freaking deal of it. I ended up going back to the hostel early so that I could take care of a different task: I had to find the perfect dress for the PwC Holiday Party, and I was determined to find it in a used clothing store. Thankfully, the hostel I had chosen for its proximity to the Gare du Nord train station also happened to be surrounded by used clothing boutiques. Just the process of combing through them was fun! In the third or fourth store I went into, I found the perfect one. There was no booth for trying on the clothes, so the woman working in the store held a cloth in front of me, beach towel style. She and I agreed that the first dress suited me best, so I paid cash for it and headed back to the hostel grinning.

The next day, I took the train out to Versailles.For the second time of the trip (after the Vatican), I felt claustrophobic. The tour groups were huge and coagulated in the most inconvenient places. Still, the tour was neat - it is a very large and very sparkly castle. I far preferred wandering the endless, curving rows of hedge in the Versailles gardens.

Royal Bedroom

For the final day of my trip, I visited the Musee d’Orsay, which is now far and away my favorite museum in the world. Impressionism has always been my favorite style of art, and this museum has room after room of it. I was drooling. The space itself is also gorgeous. After visiting this museum, I decided that I need to return to Paris and bring my momma with, so that she too can see some of the best works by her favorite artists. I was awestruck, and completely absorbed by the beauty of the artwork. An ache slowly built in my heart, because I knew that all too soon I’d be home. I realized how much I would miss this transient lifestyle, with its constant novelty.
Central hall
Peering out through the clock face

Paint me like a French girl

Some of my favorite Monet's in the background

Van Gogh's self portrait
That evening, I needed a grand finale to the trip. I found a lovely gluten free cafe in the corner of a marketplace and then decided to go to the most romantic place in the world, alone: the Eiffel Tower lit up by night lights. It seemed to bring the trip full-circle, for I visted the Eiffel Tower on my first day in Europe, and also on my last. As I strolled along the lawns, I was struck by how truly beautiful and charming the tower is at night. There were couples everywhere, including one who looked like they had just gotten engaged - both of their families were with them, and the woman was beaming with a bouquet of roses filling her arms. My heart glowed even though I had no one to warm my hand, or drape an arm around my shoulder, and I realized that I was truly happy, period. I was happy. I was grateful to the bottom of my heart for traveling, and for all the places I went, things I saw, experiences I lived, and the people I met. At the same time, I came to peace with the end of my journey and decided that I was ready to go home, too. On the way back to the hostel, I spent my last Euros - some on a small Eiffel Tower replica to remind me of this moment and its realizations, and I gave the rest to a refugee family in a spontaneous act of generosity welling from a full heart.

In the wee hours of the morning, I rose and went to the train station. The sign kept changing which platform I needed, and eventually my fellow travelers and I realized there might not be a train departing for the airport, after all. We quickly agreed to pool funds and find a taxi to take us to the airport, even though we had already purchased train tickets, because none of us were about to miss our international flights home. I felt like the village idiot, because I had spent all my cash the night before. I almost regretted giving my money to the refugee family, but then I realized that what I actually regretted was not pulling out more cash in the first place. Luckily, we worked it out - I paid for the cab with card, and everyone else gave me cash. I made my flight to London, and was able to spend my last British pounds (OF COURSE I had pounds leftover, but no Euros) at the duty free store. My purchases? The best Milka bar ever to bring to my family, and some whiskey and Coke. I promptly mixed a very strong drink in the middle of the airport, at 10 in the morning, appalling many around me. I silently wished them to keep their judgment to themselves, for they would probably do the same if they were facing a daytime overseas flight home.

To my joy and pleasure, a large group of students boarded the same Denver-bound plane. A posh British boarding school was taking a group of students to Winter Park, Colorado for a ski trip! One of the seventh grade girls was seated right next to me, while the rest of the students and chaperones were several rows back. I felt bad for her, so I tried to make a little conversation. Eventually one of her friends came up and joined us. We chatted about the UK, and what they were excited for in America (their answer: shopping malls). I think the flight attendant took pity on me, because she brought me two or three free mini bottles of wine, which I drained. And then, the time pretty much flew by until I was hugging my mom outside the international arrivals gate in DIA. (Flew by! Get it?) I was finally home after the trip of a lifetime. 

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