spectacular spectacular: paris travel blog
So back in September, I got to do something pretty cool. Airbnb x VICE sent me to Paris!
They selected four different cities as backdrops for four different "experiences": Township Techno, which focused on the electronic dance music scene in Cape Town, South Africa; Belle of the Ball, a study of the underground voguing movement in New York City; Coming Out in Tokyo, which examined the role of gender in Japan's queer communities, and Lust in Translation, an exploration of sex and sexuality in Paris, France.
A lot of people asked me what I wrote to win, but I can't remember exactly anymore. But I thought it would be really fascinating to study sexuality and sex culture in other countries, because I think sexuality informs everything, from the way we view ourselves to the way we interact with other people. It's fascinatingly different across all cultures, whether it's taboo or celebrated, and reveals a lot about the way cultures are born and are appropriated. And what better place to learn about these things than in one of the most romantic cities in the world?
And Airbnb and VICE agreed! So I hopped on a plane to Paris after work one day, for six days and the trip of a lifetime.
Post-hopping-on-a-plane, I've got a long journey ahead of me. I've mostly avoided red-eye flights as an adult, as my mom and sisters and I used to take them all the time to New York when I was little. They're still as exhausting as I remember, especially since Paris is six hours ahead. It's an adjustment. But...getting in at 6:30 am means seeing the entire stretch of sky, above the clouds, and watching the first fingers of daylight climb up over the horizon, the red molten sun setting fire as it rises. The whole sky is painted in cotton candy colors as we chase the sunrise across the clouds. This part is not so terrible, and suddenly I'm wide awake.
A thin layer of fog spiderwebs over the land below, delicate as smoke but just enough to obscure everything that lies beneath it, a literal shroud of mystery. I marvel at the expanse of countryside, where everything is so spread out over rolling hills and not so stacked on top of each other like in cities. I always wonder when I pass over patchwork fields what they are. Farmlands? I don't know enough about the countryside. I always wonder about the lives I pass over, in places I will likely never go.
I take a little shuttle from the airport into the city, which is like this little train that zips along a track aboveground like a futuristic bus-cable car hybrid. It's a little bit Black Mirror, which is unnerving. But the subways are so pretty—cavernous, mosaiced tunnels that look much older and much more European than the ones at home (I'm already calling New York "home" as if I haven't only lived there for three months). You know sometimes when you can't exactly articulate what makes a place different, but you just know it when you see it? I can't exactly tell you what makes it look Parisian, it just does, which is a pretty amazing thing if you think about it, because it's the culmination of all of my cultural knowledge of Paris without actually having been to Paris before. Everything I know is from books, movies, art, etc. A culture reduced to its very stereotypical essence. Anyway.
It's a little chilly here but not cold. Very brisk. But after a lot of hot weather in both San Diego and New York, I'm ready for it. And Parisians are so damn hip. That's one great thing about big cities: You never really have to worry about being overdressed because there will always be someone dressed nicer and/or more extra than you.
My very first order of business is to eat breakfast. I'm starving. So I go to Les Petits Caprices and order a chocolate-pistachio confection in what I'm sure is a terrible French accent. I'm very nervous, because my French could definitely use some refreshing. Thankfully, the bakers understand what I'm trying to communicate, and I carry the pastry like a badge of honor.
Fun fact about me: I used to be really obsessed with the French language when I was around 12 years old. I legitimately have no idea why, or even how it started. I think I found out that both of my parents had taken French in high school (but aside from that, do not speak any French today). I used to keep a little college-ruled notebook with me, full of French words and phrases, and I made my mom buy me activity books and tapes in French. At one point, I could actually read very short and easy stories fluently. But then I left the notebook at a Chinese restaurant and never saw it again. So my French is quite limited. And because I went on this trip so suddenly, I didn't really have time to learn a lot of it. I don't remember it having so many nuances when I was younger; I just kind of picked it up. I suppose that's why you're supposed to teach kids languages at a young age.
It's actually very strange not knowing any full languages besides English, because you just have all these bits and pieces of different languages floating around in your head, but you can't make any sense of them. I find that when I try to describe things in other languages, I'll usually default to Spanish or Mandarin (neither of which I am fluent in) by accident, just because I'm so focused on not saying it in English.
I arrive at the Airbnb and meet my host, Yves, who is the cutest little Frenchman. He welcomes me enthusiastically, but I don't have time to talk as I have to meet my experience group. I quickly shower and just like that, I'm out the door. What even is sleep.
The first stop is Legay Choc, the first "gay bakery" in France, famous for its "magic wands" or...dick-shaped baguettes. Yes, you read that right. We are to leave our shame at the door in this experience, it appears. I meet Elena, Cheyenne, and Diego from New York, Jorrick from Texas, and Jessica from Florida. Our experience guide is Camille, an acclaimed sex author and journalist, who explains the history of the bakery and of the district, Le Marais (pronounced "Lu Mar-hay," but with the French "r"), which is famous for being very LGBTQ-friendly (a good place to sell dick bread). We notice a lot of bees buzzing around the pastries inside and see a sign with a bee on it, so we ask Camille to translate. She explains that because the bees are dying, the bakeries allow them to hang around and feed on the bread, a little pit stop on their pollination journeys.
Our next stop is Passage du Desir, which was the first "love shop" to open in France a decade ago. According to Camille, there was a lot of stigma around it, but not for the reasons you'd think (there are still plenty of sex shops around). She said that the French were "very proud" and thought they didn't need a sexual education. Thus, in this regard, Paris was about 30+ years behind the U.S., which opened its first love shop, Good Vibrations, in San Francisco in 1977. But the opening of Passage du Desir changed the conversation around sex and gender roles in France.
Apparently, there's a notable difference between sex shops and love shops. Sex shops are a bit seedier. Love shops are not supposed to be shameful; they're to promote healthy discussion of sex and empowerment. They still sell porn, but it's what Camille calls "ethical porn."
"Think of it as McDonald's vs. organic food," she explains. "Ethical porn is more feminist: the way it's filmed, the practices they show. It's more real, and it is really about pleasure."
On our part, we're all fascinated by the sex toys, from the very subtle (they have some chokers/body chains that could be Coachella accessories) to the very not subtle.
We take a walking tour of Pigalle next, one of Paris' most famous districts, and home to many cabarets and burlesque theaters, including the Moulin Rouge, which is all of my 10th grade dreams come true.
We stop for dessert and wine at Hotel Amour, which used to be a literal love hotel, a place where men would take prostitutes, until the popularity of courtesans in the 19th century elevated the science of sexuality. Now it's an actual hotel, and it's gorgeous, with glass ceilings and an abundance of plants. The chocolate mousse and salted caramel custard are especially delicious.
It's actually really nice to have an honest, open conversation about sex. We ask Camille about everything from extramarital affairs (not a big deal) to STD rates in France (not particularly high). Americans think about sex very differently—it's more of an endgame than a part of the getting-to-know-you stage of the relationship. The French, on the other hand, consider flirting a sport, in which sex is not necessarily the objective. It's kind of a fun little game. In France they also have a standardized sex education, which is something I still can't believe we're having debates about in America. It's so primitive. And it's probably the reason that sex is still taboo, and only discussed in scandalous terms for the most part. I found myself embarrassed to tell people back home exactly what the experience entailed. But I suppose that's the whole point of it—to venture outside of your comfort zone.
As a sidenote, I just recently remembered the existence of one of my favorite shows, This Is Life with Lisa Ling. I've mentioned it before in a Minute Thoughts, but it's a really spectacular documentary series about subcultures in America. If you want a good example of really stellar reporting with both integrity + emotion, this is what you should watch. She reports with so much compassion and so little judgment; it's truly remarkable. But I just remembered because the trailer for the fourth season teases an episode called "Sexual Healing," all about sex and relationship therapy. This isn't the first time she's openly talked about sexuality—she wrote an essay on strip clubs a while back following her "Road Strip" episode on traveling strip shows. But in this episode she discusses the importance of simply being comfortable with sexuality itself and with your own body, and why she even felt compelled to strip down herself in an episode despite growing up in a conservative household and originally avoided conversations about sex. And that's the power of this show. You finish watching with your perspective of the world completely opened. Even if you're not, say, a heroin addict, a satanist, or an aspiring sugar baby, this show really encourages you to deeply empathize with your fellow humans. And I think that's a really important thing to remember, that feeling of empathy and understanding and non-judgment, especially when you travel.
Okay, now I'm done.
The last stop of the experience is Le Carmen, an incredible bar located in Georges Bizet's former residence and named for his most famous work.
We get a private burlesque lesson from two dancers, which is, safe to say, far out of all of our comfort zones. But we discover that it's mostly about attitude. It's pretty fun. A little coy, a little sexy, but surprisingly not crude. It all feels very surreal. Burlesque! In Paris! The moral of the story: Catwalking is hard. I have a lot more respect for the girls on America's Next Top Model.
We are rewarded for our efforts with a taste of the house gin, which is stored in jewel-colored bottles on the high shelves behind the bar. Mine is infused with jasmine (of course).
We part ways with Camille and go off in search of dinner around Montmartre. The Moulin Rouge is especially gorgeous now that dusk has fallen and all of the lights are on.
We go as a group to Clasico Argentino for empanadas, because all of the other restaurants in the area are fully reserved for dinner (oops). But they're actually delicious, especially one with caramelized onions and a trio of cheeses. Amazing.
I am so tired, though. I've only slept two out of 40ish hours, and I've been running around since I got here. So when the rest of the group goes to Madame Arthur for an actual burlesque show, I go back go to the Airbnb and and fall into a deeply exhausted sleep.
I wake up extremely late and very disoriented and don't leave until the afternoon. I go to Passage du Grand-Cerf, a covered arcade built in 1825. There are several of these passages all around the city, constructed so that wealthy Parisians could shop even on rainy days.
It's beautiful inside. It's hidden in plain sight, tucked between a pharmacy and a café. I would have missed it had I not been looking for it. But it's like a gateway to another world, with high glass ceilings and polished-wood storefronts housing yarn stores, antique shops, and jewelry studios. It feels like being transported back in time, when everything was a bit more glamorous.
I order pastries at a boulangerie nearby. I struggle with the pronunciation yet again, but you'd be surprised at how far "Ça, s'il vous plaît," goes here. Someday, I will come back here, and I will speak better French. But I quickly learn how to say "Sorry, I don't speak French" after initial greetings necessitate more conversation, which is terrifying. French is particularly tricky because half of the letters are unpronounced. I find the "r's" especially difficult to say.
Before I came here, my friend Colin told me, "Make sure you're nolit running around the whole time and you take some time and just relax and get a cup of coffee" And he was right. One of the best things about being here is taking it slow, and really admiring the space around you, because there's always so much going on and so much to observe. Especially here, where the people are vibrant in a very secretive way that's intriguing to me.
I always do extensive research before I visit any city because I always want to get the most out of it, and I've discovered that National Geographic has some of the best and most thought-provoking travel guides out there. I don't know why I didn't think of it before. But it has some really beautifully-written, immersive pieces that inspired me a lot, including this one about people-watching.
In this city, it’s all about seeing and being seen.
Reading lifestyle blogs is one of my top guilty pleasures, but they often fail to capture the richness of the places they talk about. I want to know everything. I want to know that the air in Paris is perfume-and-and-bread-and-cigarette-scented; that everyone is so glamorous but in a very real woke-up-like-this way, with Chanel purses and swingy overcoats and no makeup except for bright red lipstick; that while New York has the hustle and bustle, Paris has languid afternoons at sidewalk cafés and a language of shared passions.
And that's kind of why I take pictures of everything and write about everything. It's for people to experience it with me, but it's also for myself. I know most people won't scroll through hundreds of pictures, but I like going back and reading them a year or two later. It takes me back to very specific emotions tied to very specific places, and that's why I take the time to write down all the little details that most people probably don't care about, but I love. It's like a little time capsule.
So it's nice to just sit here, soaking in all of the energy that is Paris. I'm enchanted by everything around me—the café culture, the cobblestone streets, the tall cream-colored buildings with sloped roofs and pretty, ornate ironwork. The way people actually walk around with whole baguettes tucked under their arms.
Paris is so lively. I love it. I already think I could live here.
Apparently there's another passageway nearby, so I wander around until I find it.
And this one is literally breathtaking. I have to stop and stare at it for a minute. It's called Galerie Vivienne, and it's even more stunning than Passage du Grand-Cerf. The floor is completely covered with gorgeous mosaics and there are large, cream-colored stone archways in between high glass dome ceilings.
I stop at a cozy little café called Odette et Zoé, mostly because I am intrigued by the promise of scones and clotted cream. I meet Killian, who speaks perfect English thus saving me from having to order in French. I settle on a pot of jasmine tea and scones with clotted cream, two of my absolute favorite things in the world. If you don't know what clotted cream is, it's this thick cream made from slow-cooking regular full-fat heavy cream very, very slowly and it's amazing. It's rich, creamy, and buttery and it's pretty much heaven. It's almost savory, which makes it a very nice pairing with scones and jam.
He asks me where I'm from, and when I answer New York, he tells me he lived in Bushwick for four years. Small world. His friend Damien comes in and I talk to him as well. Both are very well-traveled, and they invite me out drinking with them, because according to Damien, "No one has tea this late in the afternoon."
I compliment them on their English, because English is supposedly the second most-difficult language to learn after Mandarin. But they both insist that English is easy, specifically American English (as opposed to British). My guess is that American English is much more legato and therefore more similar to French than the staccato British English. But I think English is hard and I majored in it.
They take me to a restaurant called La Favorite where I meet a bunch of their friends and we all sit outside on the sidewalk, drinking and smoking cigarettes (I did not participate in the latter, as I still have pure smoke-free Californian lungs). They all do the kiss-on-the-cheek thing, which I just barely remember at the last minute. "Ahh, you're not used to it!" exclaims one of them, laughing. The French don't hug. At all. It's just not a thing. There's not even really a word for it, as far as I can tell (the closest translation is "to cuddle"). But kissing is the standard greeting here, which I find very intimate, especially for people I've never met before.
Afterward we go to a little wine bar owned by one of their friends, in Montmartre. I meet Diego, who currently lives in Brooklyn but is back home in Paris on vacation, and Victoria, who also lived in Bushwick for a short time. We drink wine and eat charcuterie, which feels very surreal, because when am I ever going to hang out at a wine bar in Montmartre with locals again? This is exactly what I love about travel. I love waking up and not knowing what's going to happen.
Cultural stereotypes are an interesting thing. Diego (who, interestingly, has zero trace of a French accent and in my opinion, sounds very Californian) asks me what Americans think of the French, and I tell them that Americans often find the French rude, which surprises them a little. But I feel like it's a very commonly held opinion, that perceived standoffishness. I remember interviewing a French transfer student at UCSB for a feature in WORD called "Humans of Isla Vista" back in sophomore year, and he said that he felt people were much friendlier in Isla Vista than in France (everyone at the table here agrees that New Yorkers are "very friendly" in comparison to French people, which makes me laugh to myself because I can't imagine what they would think of Californians). When I asked him why, he said that the French are very proud of their history and their culture, and if you want to discuss these things with them that you should speak French out of respect. And although this was a passing remark made years ago, having never been to France or met many French people, that one interaction has informed my view of French people. My friend once told me that people do speak English in France, but if you ask them in English, they won't help you, and this terrified me.
So far I've experienced nothing but warmth since I've been here, and it's probably partly because they're all friends of Killian's and Damien's, but I think it's also that I've tried my best to speak French since I've been here. Successful or not, I suspect that people are much more receptive to me, even when I give up and revert to English, just because I've tried. Damien, who speaks French, Spanish, and English, explains: "It shows that you care enough to at least attempt conversation."
In my research before coming here, I found something that said "Remember, French people are just as self-conscious about speaking English as you are about speaking French." That really put things in perspective. So now every time I say "bonjour" to someone, and am painfully aware of how American I sound, I remember that they probably feel the same way about speaking English (although everyone I've met so far speaks impeccable English). It astounds me that anyone can make fun of accents when learning other languages is so difficult.
Montmartre is very charming, full of colorful little storefronts. We go to the very top of the hill and sit on the steps in front of a huge stone church, the Sacré-Cœur Basilica, and watch the whole city glittering with lights. The picture doesn't even come close to doing it justice.
I have a thing for cities. I'm convinced I will always love cities. As much as I appreciate nature aesthetics, there's just something about seeing a complex constellation of lights stretching as far as the eye can see and feeling so remarkably small. Paris doesn't have any skyscrapers, so you can see the streets glowing yellow, lit like molten gold. All I can think of is how ridiculously, absurdly lucky I am to be here right now.
Today is the day I go to the Louvre! Words cannot express how excited I am. I'm pretty sure my entire life has been leading up to this point. I'm almost as excited as I was to see Angkor Wat. I suppose each is a reflection of the past, one carefully curated with thoughtful explanations and analysis, and the other an existing symbol of ancient traditions.
The Louvre itself is a work of art. From the trademark glass pyramids that mark the entrance to the beautiful curved stonework framing the exhibitions, it feels designed with incredible purpose. It sounds lame but I just like being in museums. Being surrounded by centuries of history from so many different places is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
The descriptions are all in French, which is a challenge, because so much of your experience when you go to a museum relies on the interpretation of other people. It's a really interesting thing, actually; I always wonder who writes the descriptions, because I think it's a monumentally important job to essentially be the translator between the dead and the living. And art is so subjective, so I wonder how much of their personal bias seeps into our perception of the work today.
What I didn't know was that the Louvre used to be a palace and evolved into a museum over the course of 500 years. It's HUGE. So big that I spend 3.5 hours walking around and I still only see around 1/3 of the things I wanted to see. I didn't even get to see the Mona Lisa. I suppose that's an excuse to come back.
I eat dinner at Café Marly which is located in the Richelieu wing of the museum and whose crown jewel is its outdoor terrace, which looks out into the courtyard with the glass pyramid. Damien told me that this is a French pastime—that when the weather is nice, Parisians will crowd outdoor café sidewalks, eating, drinking coffee, and smoking cigarettes.
I have to admit that it's a nice way to spend an evening, to slowly enjoy a meal and to simply observe everyone else. Here, it's clear that everyone is here for the same reason: To witness the famous beauty and culture of Paris for themselves. It's both a romantic and a romanticized city all at once, and the buzz of it all envelops you, not in an overwhelming or overstimulating way, but in a way that sweeps you off your feet and leaves you speechless. I haven't been back to Europe since I visited the Mediterranean with my family in 2008, but I have a newfound appreciation for the European way of life, and the easygoing pace of it all.
I go to the Eiffel Tower next. It's lovely, but overrated in the sense that there's not much to do there. But I do like the way it glitters with lights, like an excited bunch of fireflies. You know the movie cliché that you can see the Eiffel Tower from any given place in Paris? I feel like it's kind of true; it's so tall and its frame such a distinctive shape that you can always see it peeking out from between the buildings.
To top off the night, I go to Carette, this lil bakery in the district (or arrondissement) near my Airbnb that Killian recommended. I get a pot of jasmine tea and something I don't quite know how to pronounce (through extensive Googling and reverse image-searching, I find out that it's called a Saint Honoré). It's kind like a croquembouche but not quite? It's delicious, whatever it is. Cream puffs layered with whipped cream, raspberries, and sugar crisps. I think a good cup of tea is probably one of the simplest pleasures in life. A good cup of tea and dessert at a café in Paris right before bed...is my idea of heaven.
But I sleep early because I'm planning on waking up early to see Versailles tomorrow.
It's much too early and I hate everything. I text Tia to complain to her, but it's made me realize something. My mom has always advocated experiences over material things, and sometimes experiencing these experiences entails waking up at stupidly early hours to go places. And I've kind of adopted that mindset—that sometimes you have to suffer a little for the sake of experience. Like the time I woke up at 4 am to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Or the time I stayed up until 4 am talking to my Hungarian and Austrian friends that I'd just met in Thailand before we woke up early to go to the floating market. Or any time I've ever gone to a rave.
I take a train out of the city to the Palace of Versailles (or simply "Château de Versailles"). I get to see the sun rise over the Seine, which is very pretty and admittedly not the worst way to wake up. I think I've figured out what makes buildings look so characteristically French, besides the actual façades themselves: it's the the tapered rooftops. Whenever I look at them, I'm instantly reminded of the scene in Moulin Rouge! where Satine and Christian sing on the rooftop, or any of the aerial shots of Montmartre. God, I love that movie. I'll have to rewatch it sometime.
If I had to give you any advice, it would be to be very careful of which days you go, and to buy your train ticket ahead of time, for god's sake. Some days at the palace are more expensive than others; I happen to go on a day the "Musical Fountain Show" is happening, so tickets are already cost much more than normal, but then I make the additional mistake of thinking that a normal metro ticket will suffice. It will not, as the woman informs me, and a ticket once aboard the train is €35, or $41 USD. Absolute madness. I'm even grouchier than I was before I got on the train, but Airbnb gives us a little bit of money per diem to cover expenses, which is the only reason I'm not absolutely furious. I suppose this is where mine is going today.
When I arrive, I can see why Tia told me to go early. The line is already massively long, snaking around the entire courtyard in front of the palace. It's 8:45 am and the palace hasn't even opened yet. I pray that I'm waiting in the right line, because literally no one here speaks English and I'm sandwiched between two Russian(?) women and a group of Korean tourists. It's wild. There are so many people here, from all over the world.
Once we are released into the palace, it's chaos. There are so many tour groups milling around, and many of them are Chinese tour groups, which I have an extreme distaste for. They don't really have a concept of personal space in China, nor do they really queue like other countries (it was only introduced to them in 2008, in preparation for the Beijing Olympics, so it's still a very new idea). I get jostled a lot, and I rush from room to room as quickly as possible trying to avoid the crush of oncoming tourists.
But the palace itself really is spectacular. Supremely opulent, the kind of opulence that starts a revolution (too soon?), with ornate gold-inlaid fireplaces, all-marble walls, and chandeliers dripping in diamonds and crystals.
One thing that always fascinates me about royal residences is just how many resources are devoted to a single person or a single family. It's crazy. So much wealth and luxury, so many rooms, and all for a handful of people. I don't even know if I'd want that much space in my house. I think it would just feel empty. Or creepy. I imagine hide-and-seek was a lot of fun, though.
I like the gardens much better. They really are breathtaking—a huge expanse of greenery and fountains and even a large canal. You can walk through the maze of trees at your own pace and enjoy being hidden in the shade, rather than herded like cattle through tightly roped-off areas. It's much quieter here, and much more spread out. The gardens are the perfect place to get lost and wander around aimlessly. Or the perfect place for a murder, because given the size of them, I'm sure no one would find the body for days. But I digress.
I walk down Allée de la Reine, a long path shaded by trees diverging from the canal. The leaves are beginning to brown and carpet the dirt paths, and there's a crispness in the air accompanied by that woody, earthy scent that I always associate with rainy fall days. I always love the way the air feels in my lungs when I inhale. More reasons I'm excited for my first real fall in New York. The closest I've ever come to the open countryside was when my family would drive out to Ramona to go apple-picking at Corcoran Ranch, and this kind of reminds me of that.
I finally get to the Queen's Hamlet, a little miniature village personally commissioned by Marie Antoinette. It's way out past the main gardens, and there aren't as many people here, which is a relief, because I can finally just walk around in peace. This was where she would go when she was tired of court, to play peasant with her friends (which I'm sure the actual peasants loved). It was influenced by Rousseau's idea of a "return to nature," and the buildings are cute and rustic, but because it was Marie, apparently the interiors are very lavish.
They're so tiny. I wonder if all people were just shorter back then, or if the were purposefully designed to be small. They remind me of dollhouses.
I wander around a little more, just enjoying being outdoors and seeing all the animals. Apparently Marie Antoinette kept cows, sheep, and bunnies, all kind of just chilling out in the open fields.
It's a perfect day today. I think this would be a very nice place to live. Of course, it's also nice to have the Palace of Versailles to go back to when you're done hiding from the responsibilities of French Court.
By the time I return to the Airbnb, I'm absolutely exhausted, so I sloth out for a bit. I only leave the hostel for falafel. Two of my friends, Colin and Anna, both recommended (independently of each other) this place called L'as du Fallafel. Colin claimed that it "changed his life", so I had to go. And it was worth it. Anything that gets me out of the house when I'm in sloth mode is noteworthy. It's also kosher! It's just one of a bunch of little falafel shops in the area, but this one is immediately recognizable by its very long line, which I think has to be awkward for the other shops. But the line moves very fast; they take your order and hand you a little slip, you give it to the guy in the window, and he makes it on the spot. The Yelp reviews don't lie...it is delicious. It's also a really aggressive amount of falafel; when I first saw the menu, I considered ordering something else as well because in the States falafel on its own isn't really a meal. But this definitely is. It's difficult to explain the falafel. But it doesn't taste vegetarian at all. It's hearty, flavorful, and nice and crispy on the outside. I only started liking falafel maybe a year or two ago, so I don't know if I'm in any position to pass judgment on it, but this is A+ for sure.
I spend some time walking around the empty streets, because that's one of the best parts of traveling in Europe—just wandering. The streets are empty but beautiful. I love the way the cafés look with their neon signs, large painted glass windows, and striped awnings. It's late, but people still sit outside, speaking in hushed tones and sipping coffee.
And lastly, I go to Lenôtre for dessert, one of Tia's recommendations, and let me tell you, being in Paris has reignited my desire to quit advertising and become a pastry chef, because these cakes are a work of art. They're so perfectly crafted; I can't even imagine the amount of time and effort and artistry that went into making them, but I've seen Masterchef. Any dessert you have to assemble with pastry tweezers is worth the $12 it probably costs.
I force myself to order, an eclair gourmand à la framboise and three macarons, which is the most anxiety-inducing thing I can do in another country. I have to practice it several times. I always feel bad if I know I'm butchering the pronunciation, like I'm disrespecting the language or something. I also think in this regard Americans and Asians have it a bit harder than Europeans, not because their languages are easier (quite the contrary), but because our accents aren't particularly desirable in other countries. Someone who speaks with a French accent is charming, but someone who speaks with an American or Asian accent may be considered uncultured or naïve. Maybe that's just me being paranoid. But I feel like it's a reasonable consideration.
Anyway. This thing is beautiful. It appears to just be a vanilla eclair decorated with pastry cream, raspberries, and marshmallows. It's delicious. I also discover that I don't dislike French macarons; it's just that I only like them in France (spoiled much?). Even though I've made them several times, I've always felt the ones back home were too sugary. This time I ordered three: French vanilla, jasmine, and pistachio. The jasmine is by far my favorite. It's the most amazingly fragrant macaron I've ever tasted in my entire life. I'm now inspired to re-create it. I'm going to do a tea series: Jasmine, matcha, and Earl Grey. I'm so excited. I think the secret is just a lot of tea flavoring to temper the sweetness a little. I'm going to experiment. Please send any taste-tester applications, macaron baking tips, and donations of almond flour to my inbox.
It's my last day in Paris so I've got a lot on my schedule. First is the Musée Maillol, a museum established by Dina Vierny, who for a decade served as the muse for sculptor/painter Aristide Maillol. It's a smaller museum, one that's not normally mentioned in the same breath as cultural giants like the Louvre. I saw an advertisement in one of the underground metro stations, for a special exposition: POP ART - Icons that matter, a collection featuring artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, actually on loan from the Whitney Museum of Art in New York and presented in Paris for the very first time.
It's located on the West Bank, or the portion of the city across the Seine. I take the Pont de Arts, one of the most famous bridges in Paris, notable for its reputation as "the love lock bridge," which had begun to collapse and sigh under the collective weight of all the metal locks. Now, the rails with the locks have been removed and replaced with railings backed by plexiglass, which people have decorated with graffiti hearts. It makes me kind of sad. One one hand, I understand wanting to leave your mark in a historical place. On the other, humans ruin everything.
While I'm walking to the museum, I see a guy in a UCSB sweater, which stuns me for a minute. I want to say hi, but I'm too surprised, and while I'm processing this coincidence, he quickly disappears into a crowd of university students.
The first thing I see at the museum is a history of the pop art movement. It began in the U.S. and Britain as a counter to abstract expressionism, and then spread globally to influence European art.
In the mid-1950s in the U.S., the economy was booming and consumer culture was growing rapidly. The multiplication of images, to reflect the iconography of mass culture like advertising and comic books, became a popular social commentary, effectively commercializing objects from everyday life or iconic figures. The power of pop art was in the unconventional nature of these images, ones that subvert expectations of what "art" should and can be.
It's amazing, because pop art is a particularly powerful demonstration of how art is a product of the era. It's never an isolated expression; it's always reflective of the times, whether deliberate or not. Whether it follows or rejects a trend, art is an emotional reaction to what's out there in the real world.
...how the body is represented in pop is at times less evocative of a potential freedom than of a radical submission to the gaze that devours it.
I love pop art. It's so quirky. It's kind of supposed to poke fun at the notion that art takes itself much too seriously, so it's very flamboyant, very outspoken. It shouts, rather than simply expresses. One of the security guards tells me not to take pictures, so I'm not able to show all of it, but the collection is wonderful. When it returns to the Whitney, I'd recommend that everyone go to see it.
I think my favorite piece is one by one of my new favorite artists, Allan D'Arcangelo. It's called "Madonna and Child," and it's everything that pop art is supposed to be. It depicts Jackie O and Carolyn Kennedy with golden haloes, typical of Christ-like figures in Renaissance art, but they're faceless, representing their roles as a contemporary icons to be commoditized by the American public.
The rest of the museum was the permanent collection, full of the works of Aristide Maillol. I'd never heard of him before, but this guy did everything: painting, sculpting, and tapestry.
One of the most amazing things are the sculptures. I think I'm always fascinated by sculptures, because they're all done by hand and in 3D, so they kind of have this lifelike quality breathed into them that you don't find in a lot of paintings. There's an energy and a movement to figure sculptures; you get this sense that they may run away at any moment or retreat from your gaze. I have an endless admiration for ones with clothes draped delicately over the forms, because I think they're so beautifully intricate and detailed; the fabric always looks like it could just fall away softly. But these nude sculptures are something else. The body contours are amazing. They look like they could breathe. Every curve, every muscle is so carefully shaped.
How does one even sculpt things out of bronze? Is it like...plaster plated with bronze? Or is the whole thing bronze? Does it have to be melted down and shaped slowly? Do you do it with your hands or with special gloves? These are questions I need answers to. Googling rn.
My favorite one in this part of the museum is called "Il-de-France," inspired by Maillol's sister running into the ocean. It took him years to get the figure right. He started the body, but gave up on it. Then one day, one of his acquaintances made a movement that inspired him, and he finished the statues. Something about this one is very striking. It's amazing how you can put so much energy into a statue, inspired by just one moment, one movement in time. I am so envious of artists; they see the world through such a vibrant lens.
Pop art has spotlighted some uncomfortable truths about American society. When asked how he would define "Pop", Robert Indiana simply replied: "It is the American Dream: optimistic, generous and naïve." Should we take him at his word, as we do when gazing at his LOVE sculpture, or respond as we would to an advertising slogan mindful of its, ultimately, empty promises of happiness and a better life?
After the museum, I want to try this place with Breton-style crêpes that Tia suggested, but for some reason everything is closed on Monday (Camille and Killian both joke that this is because the French are lazy), so I settle for Galette Café, a little place that does Breton-style crêpes and galettes. For some reason, people seem to be able to tell that I'm American just by looking at me. I have no idea how. But the waiter hands me a menu in English.
I learn that a galette is kind of like a savory crêpe, made with buckwheat and filled with savory elements. I'm feeling a little under the weather, which is irritating to me because I haven't been sick in at least 16 months, I counted. But jasmine tea makes it somewhat better. I don't know if Parisian tea is well-known, but every cup of jasmine tea I've had here has been wonderful, especially the one from Carette.
I order a galette and a crêpe, and I sit by the window eating, drinking tea, and people-watching. I love people-watching, but it always feels so odd especially from inside a window, like a reverse fishbowl, watching people swim around outside. I swear that the people here even move differently; they kind of glide seamlessly by, giving off an air of ease and confidence. I suppose it's that Parisian glamour that this city is famous for.
The galette and crêpe are insanely delicious, by the way. The galette has roast chicken and mushrooms and some kind of gravy, and the crêpe has salted caramel. I was planning on picking up a baguette, but I'm absurdly full right now.
I've noticed that it's not necessarily customary to tip in France, and from Googling, that's because servers are actually paid a living wage, and the service charge is reflected in the price. Which makes the American service industry seem ridiculous. It's amazing how ethnocentric we are when, having been to a lot of other countries, I feel like there are so many things we could learn from the rest of the world.
I meet up with Killian again later, and he shows me Île Saint-Louis, a natural island in the middle of the Seine. It's a cute little island, just a couple of streets across, like a miniature town, with waterfront bars and cafés and bakeries and little art galleries lining the streets. Apparently it's very expensive to live here. We sit at a café and have a couple of beers, and walk along the riverside.
It's beautiful at night, with the colorful lights shimmering the inky water. It looks like a postcard. It looks exactly the way I thought Paris would look. I'm in love. I'm already so sad to leave this city.
In the morning, I pick up some very fancy macarons from Pierre Hermé, who, as I find out from Googling, was actually an apprentice of Gaston Lenôtre. Amazing, right?! I love when that happens. Like how Aristotle was a student of Plato who was a student of Socrates (edit: These macarons were even better than the ones I had from Lenôtre, I think because they were fresh; I had a jasmine one for comparison and it was divine. Definitely going through with my plan for a tea macaron flight. Maybe I'll pair them with actual teas! I'm way too excited for this). I also get falafel for my second and last time, and hop on the metro back to the airport. And then it's back to New York!
There's something called Paris syndrome prevalent in a lot of tourists (especially Japanese tourists for some reason); literally, the feeling of disenchantment experience after finding that Paris does not meet one's expectations. But for my part, this trip to Paris has been a genuinely incredible return to Europe after traveling Asia exclusively for the past nine years, and it's only fueled my desire to learn more about France and its culture. I won't say my French is any better, but I think after struggling through various café orders I have some ideas as to how things like mâitre d' are pronounced, etc. Six days was not nearly enough in this beautifully rich city. I'm already making a list of things I want to come back for.
This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I'm so grateful to have had this opportunity. Thanks so much to Airbnb x VICE, to Camille and Yves for their generosity and hospitality, to my new French friends for adopting me, and to the City of Love for being such a wonderful place. Paris, I'll be back for you soon! Je t'aime.