18 March 2014

I'm still dreaming about that truffle cheese

A few, quick thoughts on Paris before I resume my Congo streams (in which I have been accused of bitterness. To which I say bugger off! But seriously, I think the bitterness is gone. Cheese and wine and good company and the advent of the rainy season have leeched it out of me, so hooray for that). I am not going to dwell on Paris overmuch. Not because it’s not amazing. It is. Paris is glorious. I felt like I even got a whisper of the fabled Parisian spring; only a few things were blooming, but it was enough to get the feel for it. For the purposes of this blog, though, it’s more a matter that Paris is a bit more accessible to most people. So I’ll just urge anyone who has not yet gone to go – and any time of year will do, as a rainy Paris is still a lovely Paris – but be prepared for tourists.

So, about Paris…Paris smells like truffles and tea and cheese and bread and flowers. With the exception of the metros, which are rather pungently urine-smelling, but really, what metros aren’t? The light in Paris is amazing. It filters down narrow cobble stone streets, spilling from slanted roofs onto brightly coloured shutters and cheerfully chaotic windowsill flowerbeds. Even at dawn, it never seems direct, the light of Paris, but always a bit soft, a little sleepy. It’s the light of drowsy mornings filtered through bedsheets that just highlights the face of a new lover. It’s different at night, of course, when the monuments are lit up and compete with only the bravest stars for a reflection in the Seine. Apart from it all, the Eiffel Tower shimmers and winks like a girl twirling in a sequin gown – joyful and fearless and captivated by her own beauty.

Paris, despite the atheism currently en vogue, is a great place to kick off Lent – there are so many glorious churches to meander in and out of, dropping to ones knees before favoured saints and lighting candles for intercessions and even joining in the odd Mass as the spirit moves you. I’m so super Catholic right now. Though, if I’m being fair, it’s also a somewhat tricky place to embrace the whole self-denial aesthetic that generally defines the Lenten season. There’s just too much deliciousness (those dangerous sensuous pleasures) to abstain without serious regret (and I’ll have the forced austerity of Congo for the rest of it, so I don’t feel too guilty. Wow. I’m actually a terrible Catholic right now). We ate some astoundingly amazing food (the fit of my yoga pants now expresses that pretty clearly). There were copious baguettes and truffle oil and creamy cheeses and jewel-toned macaroons (lots and lots of macaroons. We had to take a stand in sugary war begin waged between the major patisseries, after all. It was our touristic duty. I found the chocolates rather disappointing on the whole, though) and sherry that tastes like the stained glass at Notre Dame.
Seriously.  This is what PX tastes like, only better (it's not lopsided)
Side note, here – Notre Dame, it goes without saying, is a fantastic edifice, a truly glorious piece of architecture, but it almost totally lacks any aura of the sacred at all. In fact, it’s pretty much the only one we visited in which I didn’t feel compelled to pray. I didn’t even light a candle for the poor, ill-remembered Joan d’Arc (she’s the patron saint of France, people! The woman deserves more lovin’ in the cathedrals than a handful of barely flickering 1€ candles! Spring for the 5€ mammoth one that will burn for the next two months! Which I did, just not at Notre Dame). It was almost like a Disney-ified church – stunningly well put together, but somehow more like a prop than an actual working edifice. I could also never imagine attending Mass or confession there. God knows someone would probably try to replace the Host with their Ladurée Pétale de Rose or start snogging during the Our Father or the overeager tour guides would try to narrate, unasked, and somehow inexplicably work in a Ronald Regan reference before noting that the US is a different country now. I am willing to concede that my Notre Dame experience was an odd one.
Light the woman an candle!  She's so pious and well-armed
In addition to myriad churches, Paris also has more than its fair share of stunning museums. The Musée du quai Branly is one of the most well organised museums I’ve ever been in, and their collection of non-European art is deeply impressive (even if it does raise some squiky questions about colonial raiding of art and culture from the developing world). The Musée d’Orsay has so many perfect pieces of art that it makes you dizzy. The Louvre just makes you dizzy (there is just so much to see! When even the walls and ceiling are masterpieces, it gets…overwhelming).
I got a kink in my neck from looking up so much.  What kind of museum leaves you needing a massage?!
A few words to the wise on planning your own Parisian excursions (because a week there makes me an expert!): if possible, never use a main door anywhere; you can almost always find some squirrely way to circumvent the hours-long lines. Always trust French bartenders named Axel. Making out in crypts, no matter how nicely put together, is never recommended. Consignment Channel is still not affordable Channel (I wonder if there is some kind of consignment consignment?). It is trickier than you might expect to walk into a couture store. On a related note, Parisian sales clerks and pickpockets seem to have a similar ability to sniff out wealth. The Eiffel Tower, should you endeavour to climb it, requires cash, helpful French tourists (especially if you didn’t know about the cash thing), and a solid mantra (if you are inclined to bouts of paralysis stemming from your conviction that you will fall to your death). Even so, climbing is a wildly preferable alternative to ascending in the funicular (see the aforementioned note about lines). You can reward yourself at the bottom with a Nutella crêpe, though you might want to pass by the vendor who describes them as French pancakes and also sells churros. One line you will not be able to bypass is that for the catacombs, but it is totally worth it – use the hour you’re waiting to eat lunch and edit your Eiffel Tower photos. It will help to ignore the handsy couple in front of you. Parisians are lovely people – don’t pay any mind to all the rumours. And where there are fewer tourists, the nicer they are. Even in the super touristy areas, the way the waiters ignore you almost seems charming. Finally, if you can’t make it to Paris in the near future, it seems the best place to get authentically Parisian goods outside of Paris is Japan. So, there you go. Choices!
Perfect for those of us who enjoy our French history with a touch of the creepy.  And really, isn't that everyone?

As a final and somewhat unrelated note, I certainly have to hope that Kenya Airways is not, in fact, the pride of Africa, as it offered the most underwhelming international travel experience I’ve had in recent memory, and that includes a trans-Atlantic flight on United. Flying into Nairobi at dawn, though, is not to be missed.