Tuesday, November 20, 2007

What I Did Last Summer

After spending 14 hours on the plane, I was too cross and jetlagged to drag my horribly heavy luggage to the metro, on top of the very likely possibility of getting lost, therefore I wasted no time (I wish I can say the same for money) and flagged the first taxi I saw. I was to spend the first night in an HI Hostel at the edge of Paris since my flight arrived a day early. Despite the borderline cheapskate fare of 17 Euros per night and the tiny 4-bedded dorms, it was spotless and the breakfast was as hearty as any. The crowd was eclectic and the people were very helpful and informative. The next morning I found my way to the rendezvous spot at the Latin Quarter BVJ on the left bank of the river Seine, where I’d be staying in for three nights during the pre-session. It was much more decent than the hostel (for 10 Euros more) and I shared a two bedded room with Raysha, a participant from India. By the end of the session she was the closest friend I’ve had among the group. She told me she didn’t get to choose her session; India sent the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place winners to France for separate sessions and this session was the 1st prize. So I guess I made the right choice. Our room had a stunning view from the balcony overlooking a small Church and chic apartments with red flowers lining their ornamented windows, and if you look to the far right you’d see the domed top of the Pantheon and to your right was the Seine and with a little squint you can make out the gargoyles perching perpetually over Notre-Dame’s ancient crevices. No wonder in French movies people were so fussy when their bosses gave them offices “sans fenêtre”. As Virginia Woolf had put it, one could always use a room with a view. When I stepped out of my balcony, listening to the sound of flute playing from the apartment across the street, I thought to myself, I am so in Paris.
I went around the area with Raysha on the first day and snapped pictures at every corner. I actually saw a travel souvenir shop selling bits and pieces from Indonesia just around the corner. The guide, Cécile (très jolie, looked like a Parisian version of Jennifer Aniston), gave us coupons for travels, lunch coupons and allowance for three days so we could buy ourselves nice meals during the free nights and a sandwich for the long train ride to the South at the end of the pre-session. I went to lunch on the first day at Flunch (short for French Lunch, perhaps?), a restaurant next to the Centre Pompidou that looked a lot like Marchё Mövenpick, with Raysha and three participants from Brazil: Deborah, Cristina and Émilie. All of my four companions were apparently French teachers and have been speaking French half if not their entire lives. I cowered slightly thinking that my six-month old acquaintance with the French language will never be on par. J’étais vraiment nerveuse. But soon another participant arrived from Japan, Yukari, who spoke very little French and no English, and my (wicked) spirit was lifted a little. One by one the participants arrived and the entire group of twelve (eleven girls and one guy, le pauvre…) comprised of: Raysha, Deborah, Cristina, Émilie, Yukari, Natasha (Bosnia), Maria (Lebanon), Marwa (Egypt), Léon (Latvia), Dulce (Mexico), Sandra (German) and yours truly. In the afternoon Cécile gave us a guided tour around the Latin Quarter: Ile de la Cité, Notre-Dame, Hotel Du Ville (the town hall), Pantheon, some Museums, Paris Plages, Place St. Michel, and I couldn’t believe that just behind the hotel was Sorbonne! I took it as good karma. The first night I went to Place St. Michel with Raysha to have dinner at some Italian restaurant and we got to see street performers, artists, a row of Greek joints with heaps of broken white plates at their entrances, and the whole bustling night scene at St. Michel that kept me coming back again and again during my stay in Paris. We were back at the hotel at almost midnight, but it felt early since in Paris it doesn’t get dark until ten.
The reason we couldn’t stay up late the first night was that because the next day we would be leaving for Montmartre bright and early. By seven a.m. I was taking breakfast downstairs and had, for the first time in my life, a bowl of chocolate for breakfast. I was astonished at the size of the serving, I mean, a bowl! Not a cup, not a glass, but an entire bowl! I thought they were pranking tourists or something. Apparently, explained my German friend understandingly with just the right dose of pity, it was perfectly normal in Europe to drink hot beverages from bowls. I guess it was simply one more thing citizens of third world countries are missing out on besides food, healthcare, educated politicians and proper internet access. We took a metro to Montmartre where I went souvenir shopping like crazy. Seriously, I entered shops saying things like, “Can you pack me fifty of those key chains?” If I knew I had a long climb ahead of me I would have shopped after I visited the Sacré-Coeur. We got to the foot of the church and climbed the stairs – pilgrim style and all, and reached the entrance drenched in rain. When I entered the church, a certain sentiment overcame me and it was not just the high ceilings or the dimly lit interiors, but the entire atmosphere of the place was purely enchanting. I thought I’d feel the same way, or even more, when I enter Notre-Dame or other famous cathedrals they certainly had in store for us, but it was in the modest sagacity of ancient Sacré-Coeur where I felt most humbled. In the words of my lit teacher: it was a pathos-evoking, cathartic episode.
After another lunch at Flunch (where we sat in a bunch to munch and had a bar of Crunch) we went to the Louvre. There were so many paintings to appreciate, sculptures to marvel at, ceilings to crane upon, and frankly, as much as I tried to timely ponder the important ones or the ones I liked, it was not easy with only a few hours and the gazillion tourists swarming inside. La Joconde, otherwise known as the Mona Lisa, kind of reminded me of my last Sum 41 concert (back in my groupie days…) where people line up to ask the band members’ autographs and there were bodyguards with earpieces all around. They actually put up lines for people to queue to stare at the chubby face for a rationed time. You stare too long; the guard will shove you aside unceremoniously as though you, les tourists, unlike the Mona Lisa, are dispensable trivialities. I did see, however, some wicked sculptures like the goddess Victory, Venus di Milo, Hermes and Eros, the opulent Galerie d’Apollon and ancient Titian paintings so old that you can see the contrast between their standards of beauty and the contemporary ones. I mean if Kate Moss and Rosie O’Donnell walked into a party in the year 1532, no one would even talk, let alone dance, with Kate while bachelors would rest at nothing to get Rosie’s attention. At night I went with Raysha, Émilie and Natasha to the Champs-Élysées avenue which was the shopping hub in Paris, if not the world. Orchard Road felt like a poser-ish tiny alley, and the MRT network looked amateur compared to the convoluted flower-shaped metro network. I lost the girls when I was shopping for perfumes at Marrionaud and ended up having to find my way back alone. The girls wouldn’t worry since I already got lost that morning at Sacré-Coeur, when I lost track of time and everyone had exited the church long before I realized that I got lost. But I managed fine, surprisingly, as I did at Champs-Élysées. My only worry was that the girls might be looking for me and I would trouble them plenty. Fortunately they had learned of my tendencies to wander off and gone straight home. That day I had my first ever Nutella crepe in a sandwich shop around the corner of the nearest metro station from the hotel, which would later lead to a Nutella crepe addiction that led me to do the craziest, and yet also the most unforgettable, things over the summer.

“Paris Je T’aime” My Foot: eight days in the so-called city of love

In a city where one can lock eyes for three seconds with a passerby and easily mistake it for love at first sight, my journey was amazingly anti-romantic. After the passionate Riviera and the serene Alps, I was hoping to get my own version of Paris, Je T’aime by returning to the city of lights for eight more, hopefully lovely, days. I was staying in the Latin Quarter (it’s in the movie in the “Quartier Latin” part with Gerard Depardieu and the old couple who were getting a divorce) in a youth hostel called BVJ. Unfortunately, the closest I’ve had to a Parisian encounter was when I was dared by F, my Mexican roommate, to scream “voulez vous-couchez avec moi ce soir” in Italian outside the balcony of the youth hostel. I thought, what the heck, I would be saying it in Italian therefore no one would understand me anyway, and I wanted that Crepes au Nutella she promised me. So I screamed out the balcony, and two seconds later a window across the street opened and a guy came out the balcony and said something in rapid Italian and started blowing kisses. I couldn’t understand what he was saying but my other roommate, N, who was from Naples, was in a fit of laughter. She told me then that the guy said he wouldn’t mind and it would be his pleasure. The next morning we went for breakfast and the same Italian guy was there, said his name was E from Torino and I fortunately had the chance to explain myself.
The lengths I would go for a Nutella crepe.
I don’t know how others do it. Like F, she didn’t come back to the room until 4 am one night because she got lost around Les Halles and met a guy, S, who helped her find her way, after she let him buy her dinner. Apparently he worked just around the corner of the hostel in a bar. She took me to meet him the next day and he turned out to be the owner of the joint and looked like Olivier Martinez. I mean, of all the guys in Paris, she has to get one who guaranteed her free liquors and looked like a model? The injustice.
Another night I went to the bustling night scene at Place St. Michel with two Irish girls from Belfast (they said it was no longer like in Angela’s Ashes but it’s still the most boring place on earth) where they have all these restaurants, bars, gelato vendors, street performers, artists and an entire row of Greek bistros where you can pay to break plates. It was their last night in Paris so we went to get Sangrias in a place where they hang money all over the ceiling. We met two other Irish girls there (one was wearing a T-shirt that said “I wish I spoke French”) and decided that the five of us should go some place to dance. So we went to “Ze Bar” (we thought the name was funny) to dance and ordered the package (2 shots per person) and after getting our tongues burnt by a drink called “license to kill” (the waiter told us later that the mysterious “???” in the content menu was actually Tabasco) we went to the Haagen-Dazs near Notre-Dame and one of the girls, E, was apparently drunk and started asking homeless people on the streets whether or not they have some weeds to spare for her. I told her to stop because these people were cold and they needed the weed for themselves. She shrugged me off and started belting out Spice Girls songs and A Whole New World. We sat by the Notre-Dame side entrance and watched the fire-eaters, the Spanish guitarist, the skaters and the bateaux-mouches sliding along the river Seine. It was one of those moments when you feel like you have to congratulate yourself for being alive.
I went to Versailles with F the next day. It was raining cats and dogs and I swear to whoever’s listening that it was colder than the summits of the Alps. It was not that pretty because they were doing a lot of restoration work here and there. We went back to the hostel and there were two other girls in our room from South Korea. I spent the afternoon showing them around the area, to Notre-Dame, Hotel du Ville (the Mairie), Paris Plages, Centre George Pompidou, Les Halles, Rivoli, Place St. Michel, Sorbonne, Pantheon, and had pasta for dinner in a place where they serve pasta in Chinese take-out containers. They told me to call them Unni because they’re older than me, and we talked about everything from Won Bin movies to the potential for reunification with North Korea.
The morning after I went with F and N to the Church of the Sacred Heart (Sacre-Coeur) and Montmartre to look at the artist district and check out Pigalle where the Moulin Rouge is (and countless other shops they will never allow in Indonesia). Pretty Parisian girls in skimpy costumes were standing along the sidewalks, fawningly inviting male passersby in and glaring condescendingly to female passersby, giving us a what-do-you-think-you’re-doing-here look. I felt like a free cat going to a cat circus watching other members of my species in cages, forced to wear and do silly things. Then we passed the Sexodrome (I cringed at the lack of subtlety in the name) and the Museum of Erotica where in the display they put up this wooden chair that had a hole with a rotating giant tongue in the middle of the seat. And to think that this scene was juxtaposed right next to the Sacred Heart church. Oh well.