Our first couple of weeks in Cannes, the Collège was also hosting another group of Americans staying here for a bit to brush up on the language before beginning their time studying abroad in Paris. I sat at the vegetarian table at lunch with a couple of them, and they were so eager to find out which arrondissement their homestays would be in and to adopt a chic Parisian lifestyle.
Paris is definitely a more common and popular study abroad destination than Cannes, perhaps simply because it’s such a well-known and iconic city. There’s also supposed to be quite a difference between the north and the south of France, with the south (where I am) being more laidback and friendly. So needless to say, I was so excited to get to spend a long weekend in Paris with AIFS not only because a) it’s *Paris*, but also b) I was curious to see how it lived up to the different stereotypes and stories I’ve been hearing about it (namely, fabulous food, a romantic atmosphere, and effortlessly chic and bordering on rude Parisians rushing around everywhere).
Paris did not fail to deliver!
Our day started out bright and early as we grabbed breakfast around 7ish before stuffing all of our luggage onto a bus to head to the Nice airport. Throughout breakfast and while we were loading onto the bus, Sandrine checked multiple times with people to make sure that we all had our passports. However, when she checked again as the bus was pulling away, one fellow raised his hand from the back of the bus to double check that it was okay that he just had a copy of his passport.
Luckily he was a homestay and we would be passing right near his host mom’s apartment on the way to the airport, so any delays were minimal, but the panic and disbelief in Sandrine’s eyes were real! I don’t envy her for having to travel with nearly 40 18-22 year olds. She and Aude are seriously saints!
Also luckily, the rest of the journey to Paris went quite smoothly! The bus, plane, and lastly another bus to our hotel in the Bastille district were all quite uneventful and nice chances to rest (or, for some people, sleep) before spending the day in Paris.
After checking into the hotel, we had about an hour or so before we had to meet in the lobby to go on a bus tour of the city, so Kailyn and I wandered around the Place de la Bastille, finding this cute little outdoor market and some hot chocolate (bien sûr!) and Nutella beignets.
We found our way back to the hotel with no problems and made it in time for the bus tour, led by a very warm and hilarious guide. We went all around Paris, covering quite a bit in just 2 hours, which managed to be both very helpful and somewhat disorienting as it was difficult to keep straight what was near what.
One of the first major points we stopped at was L’Hôtel national des Invalides, which houses a bunch of military-related museums and is the burial site of some of France’s war heroes, including the infamous Napoleon Bonaparte. Our guide told us about how one of Napoleon’s last wishes was for people to bow at his grave, but nobody complied; so, in order to fulfill his wishes, his tomb was put into a giant hole in the floor so that people would have to look down to see it, essentially being forced into bowing. She also told us that one of his…parts (ahem) is currently residing in New Jersey (which seems rather fitting somehow) – it was bought by a surgeon, I believe, but is now in his granddaughter’s possession after his death. Such a lovely keepsake from your grandfather! Apparently France recently asked if it could be returned to the rest of Napoleon, but the granddaughter refused because she is not a huge fan of France. Our guide was relieved, however, because it being returned would have sparked a homecoming celebration – the president would have had to give a speech welcoming it back, and it would have had a police escort and the like. Honestly, I would love to see it return just for the news coverage!
Another stop was, of course, by the Eiffel Tower! We drove around it before parking near a terrace sort of place with a wonderful view and lots of vendors selling little Eiffel Tower keychains.
As we circled the tower, our guide told us about all of the marriage proposals that take place there, including when Tom Cruise proposed to Katie Holmes; apparently he rented out the entire restaurant on the second floor for the two of them, but then he put the ring in a champagne glass, which the guide thought was very clichéd and boring. She then told us that she had a friend whose husband proposed to her by putting the ring in her bowl of carrot soup, which she thought was even worse – she spent a few rather hilarious minutes detailing why exactly her friend shouldn’t have accepted that proposal (though they are very happily married now!).
She also told us about how a while back a pregnant woman was visiting the Eiffel Tower when she went into labor while taking the elevator up to the top, and her child ended up being born in the elevator! As if the story wasn’t cool enough, the Eiffel Tower has also thrown the kid birthday parties and has given him a pass for free entry without lines whenever he wants.
Additionally, we drove down the Champs-Élysées, around the Arc de Triomphe (which has crazy traffic! There are something like 12 lanes, and accidents are so common that there’s a law that no matter who is at fault, both parties are considered to be equally responsible), and all around the Seine and its countless bridges and green boxes (or bouquinistes – basically stands that sell old books and posters!).
When we arrived back at the hotel, we had a few hours til we had to meet up in the lobby again to go to dinner as a group, so Kailyn and I decided to try to go see Notre Dame. Somehow, though, I think we ended up going in the opposite direction (maybe?), because we ended up getting pretty turned around and managed to wind up in a residential area of Paris (circles and residential areas are our specialties). We’re still not exactly sure where we ended up, but we passed by a church that we got to go into – not quite Notre Dame, but still pretty interesting!
By the time we made it back to the hotel, it was pretty much time for dinner, which was at this cute little restaurant maybe a 10 minute walk from the hotel, and which – best of all! – was free, courtesy of AIFS. I had a salad with toast and goat cheese, a “vegetarian plate” that consisted of mashed potatoes, a fried egg, and some little green thing that I could not identify but could maybe be described as a veggie soufflé?, and some pretty stellar chocolate lava cake for dessert!
We were all exhausted after dinner, but Kailyn and a few other girls and I decided to figure out how to take the Métro back to the Eiffel Tower to see it all lit up at night. We double checked the route we were planning to take with a woman at the Métro information desk (in French!) and soon found ourselves on ligne 8 headed towards l’École Militaire.
A quick word about the Métro – it’s pretty fantastic! Maybe this is just because I’ve spent the last 3ish years living in Southern California, where the public transportation is basically nonexistent, but it’s so convenient and easy to navigate, and I never felt unsafe. We took it several times a day, and by the time we left I was even beginning to remember which stops were along which line. Needless to say, I’m a fan.
So we get off at l’École Militaire, and la Tour Eiffel is just a short walk away – and it’s stunning. It has a little 3 minute lightshow every night on the hour which we wanted to see, so we had a bit of time to kill, which we spent taking pictures and fighting off vendors and commenting that it didn’t seem real that we were actually there.
Finally at 9 the twinkling starts, and I didn’t think it was possible, but the Eiffel Tower at night got even more beautiful. I wish that I could post the video I took of it on here, because the pictures don’t do it justice! It also impressed some guys standing near us who apparently didn’t know that it twinkled every hour: “What! Oh my God! What the freak is going on? That’s so freaking cool!”
Figuring that that was a pretty good way to call it a night, we headed back to the hotel for some much-needed sleep before our early morning!
The next morning, the whole group met up in the lobby again for a trip to the Musée de l’Orangerie, which houses some seriously impressive Monet. The main floor consists of a couple of circular rooms that hold what are essentially panoramas of Water Lilies – the sheer size of them and the fact that they’re all around you make you feel like you’re in the middle of a Monet painting.
The bottom floor is small but has a decent number of paintings by other artists, including Picasso and Matisse. Fun fact: I had a book called “When Pigasso Met Mootisse” when I was a kid in which Picasso was a pig and Matisse was a cow, and the illustrations were done in their different styles. Loved the book, but now I always have to stop and think about what their real names are!
After making our way through the museum, Kailyn and I hopped on the Métro to go to the Palais Garnier, the grand opera house where The Phantom of the Opera takes place. We found the building no problem (the stop we got off at was called Opéra, so it was pretty close!), but we ended up circling around the entire exterior looking for the entrance. It took another half-circuit around the building before, luckily, we saw some other people entering through a tiny little gate that we definitely would have just passed by again.
The inside is kind of ridiculously ornate – it’s absolutely beautiful and so fancy! There were scattered displays with various costumes, and we got to wander through a theatrical library and the gorgeous grand foyer. We also took a peek inside the theatre itself, and though all but a couple lights were off, we were able to see the stage and the chandelier that is so iconic from the musical. This trip was too busy to try to get tickets for a show, but the next time I’m in Paris I would love to be able to see a production and get the whole opera house experience!
Then it was back yet again to the Eiffel Tower to meet up with the AIFS group to go up to the top of the tower!
As we were going through security to get to the elevators (which are huge yet cramped at the same time), there were these bins of confiscated items that were to be destroyed later on. Among the items were a surprising number of butter knives, which just raised so many questions.
The top of the Eiffel Tower reminded me a lot of the top of the Empire State Building – very cold and very windy with a beautiful view, though sadly our view that day was hindered by a lovely fog/smog combo. It was so cold and foggy/smoggy that Kailyn and I did a quick walk around and decided to start working our way back down.
We took the elevator back down to the second floor, where we browsed around some of the shops inside the tower just to warm up a bit (I never realized just how many products the Eiffel Tower could be incorporated into!), and then got in line for the elevator down to the first floor, but upon seeing how long it was, we somewhat foolishly decided that taking the stairs wouldn’t be so bad.
I guess we were partially right – it was a thousand times easier than if we had decided to climb the stairs! But given my natural clumsiness, I was on constant alert to make sure I stayed upright and didn’t miss a step, and the stairs seemed as though they just kept coming. I had just reached the point where I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life going down those stairs when we reached the first floor without even stumbling once!
Here we found an area where the floor was made out of (really sturdy) glass so you could look down at all the people and vendors milling about below the tower, and we heard our first announcement warning the tower’s visitors to “remain vigilant. The pickpockets are active!” The wording gave us a good chuckle, and since we’re both big Harry Potter fans, we knew a thing or two about constant vigilance (thank you, Moody!), so we managed to survive the trip with all of our belongings!
Having learned our lesson before, we took the elevator down to the ground level and set off towards the Métro to go to Montmartre, one of the artsier sections of Paris and home of the Basilica of the Sacré Coeur.
Montmartre was definitely one of my favorite parts of Paris. It’s a warm and adorable area, and the people there feel very welcoming and accepting.
Our first stop was Sacré Coeur, which involved walking up a bunch of stairs from our Métro stop to the area the basilica was in, and then several stairs more to get to the actual entrance. We were able to walk through (sadly no pictures allowed inside!), and it was huge and absolutely beautiful.
From there we were off in search of a little artists’ market behind the basilica, which was fun to browse through. The creative energy there was very exciting!
Our last stop in Montmartre was one that my inner film nerd had really been looking forward to. Amélie is one of my all-time favorite movies – for me, she is a remarkably relatable character, and the emphasis the film places on whimsy and helping others (and yourself) is inspiring. The café she works at in the film, Café des 2 Moulins, is an actual place in Montmartre, so we found our way there and I got to step into the world of Amélie for a while.
The inside of the café is decked out in pictures from the movie; we sat at a table near a giant poster signed by the director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet. We even ordered the Goûter d’Amélie special (the Taste of Amélie), which consisted of hot chocolate and crème brulée, which I got a huge kick out of because one of the character’s favorite things is cracking the top of crème brulée with a teaspoon. So of course I took extra care and joy in cracking the top of mine, and it was absolutely delicious!
Next it was time to say goodbye (for now!) to Montmartre and head back to the hotel to meet up with the rest of the group to go to a one man comedy show about how to become a true Parisian. It was…entertaining! He certainly went some places I wasn’t expecting. It was definitely the most vulgar school-sponsored trip I’ve been on! A lot of the people in our group didn’t seem to care for it, and while there were some parts I wasn’t sure about, I thought it was fun overall.
After the show was over, we decided to find some dinner somewhere; a couple other girls had told us that there was a Chipotle near the theatre, which, despite not being very French, sounded heavenly, so we set out in search of that. We knew that we just had to head down the street from the theatre, but we weren’t sure in which direction. So we chose one at random and headed off, figuring that if we didn’t find it soon we’d just turn back. On our way down the road that first way, we ran into Sandrine and Aude by the Métro stop. They double checked to make sure that we knew where we were going (we had a good enough idea, so we said that we did) and wished us a good night. A couple more minutes down that street, and we decided to turn back. Naturally, Aude and Sandrine were still by that Métro stop, and they definitely saw us retracing our steps just moments after saying that we knew where we were going!
This next direction turned out to be right, and we found a corner that was basically a little American section – there was the Chipotle, a Starbucks (which we would later return to!), a McDonalds, and Paris’ Hard Rock Café. I got a burrito and some chips and guacamole and there was actual spice! It was a beautiful, beautiful reunion!
The next morning we were up early again to go tour the Louvre! We were split up into groups touring in French and in English (I went for English since I definitely don’t know enough art or history vocab to get a lot out of a tour in French) and were all given headphones and a little listening device sort of like when we were touring in Florence, which was nice because we didn’t have to huddle around the guide and could wander around the room as she spoke.
As every tour guide who talks to you about Paris will tell you, the Louvre is so massive that even if you spend just 30 seconds at each work of art, it will still take you 100 days (nonstop, with no breaks) to see everything. So we saw just a teensy tiny fraction of what the Louvre has to offer, but we hit the most famous parts of the museum, including, of course, the Mona Lisa (since you always hear about how it’s smaller than most people imagine, it was actually a bit bigger than I had expected!) and my personal favorite, Winged Victory of Samothrace (the movement is unbelievable – I swear you can hear the wings beating).
After our tour finished, Kailyn and I didn’t linger too long – we could have easily spent all day wandering the Louvre, but we had a full itinerary planned! We made our way out (after posing in front of the pyramid) and headed across the river to the Musée d’Orsay! I remember watching videos about that museum in my high school French class and daydreaming about how amazing it would be to visit one day, so I was very glad that we were able to fit it in!
After about a half hour wait in the wind and the freezing cold with a rhinoceros statue to keep us company, we headed up to the top floor to the Impressionism collection. There’s such an impressive assortment of Monet, Degas, Manet, etc. It was especially interesting because we’d been studying the different Impressionists in our art history class here, so we were able to understand more of the backstory behind the pieces and even see a good number of the specific works that we’d studied!
We more or less only knew of the Impressionism section, and it turns out that the museum is much larger! We also made our way through a few other areas, including the post-Impressionism section, which houses some pieces by my favorite, Van Gogh!
Our goal after the Musée d’Orsay was to head to Versailles for the afternoon. I should mention, too, that for our last two days in Paris (so this day and the next), all public transportation was free because of the air pollution. This worked out great, because it meant that we wouldn’t have to buy an extension to the Métro passes AIFS had given us all.
Also conveniently enough, one of the stops to catch the train we would need to take to head to Versailles was at the Musée d’Orsay, so we just headed down and hopped on the next train headed in that direction.
We only made it one stop, however, before the train totally stopped and went dark and everyone had to get off (not entirely sure where!).
We asked one of the train workers how to get to Versailles, and he told us to take the Métro line N to some stop and to then take a bus. So we set off towards the main section of the station we were at, which happened to be a huge port for trains, the Métro, buses, and the like. We looked around for anything saying line N, but all we could find with an N was a night bus, which didn’t seem quite right. So we looked around for an information desk to ask somebody else, but we were told the same thing. At this point, we figured that we were getting nowhere pretty quickly, and it was getting to be late enough that we probably wouldn’t have been able to spend much time at Versailles before it closed. So we decided to cut our losses and take the Métro back towards Notre Dame. That had been on our agenda for after Versailles anyway, but we hadn’t been sure if we’d have time to actually go inside, so we figured that this way we’d at least get one of the items on our list definitely checked off.
We made it to the island Notre Dame is on, figuring that it wouldn’t be too hard to find from there. After all, there’s a limited number of places a giant cathedral can hide!
Leave it to us to somehow get lost looking for a huge tourist attraction on a small island!
After a kind of embarrassing amount of wandering around, we finally managed to stumble across it! We got in a long line to go inside, and enjoyed listening to the two fellows studying abroad in Spain gossiping in line behind us (apparently one guy in their program really needs to tone down the partying!).
We finally made it inside, and all I can really say is wow! It’s immense and the stained glass is gorgeous. We also went into the treasury, which let us get much closer to said stained glass and some super shiny religious objects.
By the time we made it through, we figured that we still had time to go to Sainte-Chapelle, a chapel right near Notre Dame; my friend Dennis has always told me that the stained glass there is even more breathtaking than that at Notre Dame, so I’ve been pretty curious about it.
The line for Sainte-Chapelle was a good bit shorter than the one at Notre Dame, but much much slower. It was very cold outside and our feet were absolutely killing us at that point, but we were determined to make it in!
All we can figure about the line is that it was slower because the security was higher – we had to go through a metal detector and the like here, while at Notre Dame there was just a brief (surprisingly brief!) bag check. We think this was because, for some reason, the entrance gives access to both this chapel and the palais de justice.
Dennis was right (thank you for the suggestion!) – the stained glass at Sainte-Chapelle was breathtaking! We climbed this very narrow and steep stairway to get to the second floor, which brings you to this room that is floor to ceiling gorgeous stained glass. It’s truly a magnificent and humbling sight, and I would absolutely suggest making it a must-see if going to Paris!
We were just dead tired at this point, so we decided to grab dinner at a little café across the street – omelets, fries, hot chocolate, and dessert crepes definitely hit the spot and were the extra oomph we needed to get back to the hotel in one piece! We also got to enjoy the strong southern accents of the group of older Americans sitting near us as they tried to figure out what the menu meant and planned their schedule for the next day.
We were back at the hotel pretty darn early that night, but there was no way we could have handled seeing anymore, either physically or mentally! Going to bed early was exactly what our achy feet needed.
Our last morning started off with the AIFS group going off to the Seine for a river cruise/tour! We all eagerly piled onto the top of the boat for the best view, but as the tour got going, more and more people fled to the heated downstairs section! It started off alright, but it eventually got to be so freezing (especially with the biting wind) that all but a couple brave souls were down trading in the gorgeous view for the preferred warmth and shelter! I was able to stay up top for about half of the tour, but once my tears started freezing I figured it was time to admit defeat.
The tour itself was interesting – we got to see a lot of the details of the bridges up close, which we didn’t really have the opportunity to see on land. I was also glad that we had this tour at the end of our trip, because already being familiar with the city made it easier to pick out which buildings the guide was talking about.
We had a few hours after the tour before having to meet back at the hotel to check out. Kailyn and I decided to take it pretty easy since we had been running around nonstop for the last few days, so we went back to the area near the theatre from a couple nights before and grabbed lunch at this delicious little Italian place before heading across the street to the Starbucks for a little taste of home.
As I mentioned before, Parisians tend to have two stereotypes around them – that they’re either super rude or super romantic/flirty. I don’t recall encountering any outright rude Parisians – they tend to rush everywhere and avoid eye contact, and there were some that maybe weren’t exactly friendly, but not rude. So, based on my experience, I’d say that that stereotype is only semi-true. I would have said the same about the flirty/romantic one, too – but then I met the Starbucks barista.
So I order my drink from him, and as he starts making it he asks me to go over by him. I have this super helpful brain block where I can’t tell when people are flirting with me at first, so I assume that it’s just how Starbucks works in France and join him. He starts asking me questions (not related to my drink, like I had been expecting!) like where I’m from and how long I’ll be in Paris, and I tell him that I’m leaving that afternoon but had spent the weekend there. He then says something that I don’t quite understand, so I say “Sorry?” and he repeats himself – I still don’t quite catch it but don’t feel that I can ask again, so I just kind of laugh a little and say yeah. It wasn’t until he told me that I was breaking his heart that it clicked that he had been asking if it was too late to ask me out! I then proceeded to feel very awkward as he asked me about what I’m studying – he seemed super impressed that I study film/screenwriting and even had a screenwriting book to recommend for me. He apparently spends a ton of time at the movies and wanted to talk New Hollywood with me, but by that point my drink was ready and he had to start making Kailyn’s, so he tells me to come back sometime so we can talk movies some more, and I go and find a table. Kailyn joins me a minute later, cracking up because the guy kept asking her questions about me (including if I already had a boyfriend) and he told her to try to get me to come back again before we left Paris. Once we finished, I tried to sneak out unnoticed as he was taking another customer’s order, but he saw us going and called out a very hearty “Bye, Grace!” coupled with a wink.
So I think I accidentally have a Parisian barista boyfriend now?
On our way back towards the Métro to head back to the hotel, we found this little shopping area that was almost like a tiny outside mall that we wandered through – it had the most adorable little stores that made for some really fun window shopping. My favorite was this old bookstore that was unfortunately closed that day!
It was finally time to head back to the hotel to catch the bus to the airport to catch the plane to Nice to hop on a bus back to Cannes (phew!)!
Long story short – Paris was absolutely amazing. The amount of history and culture in that city is remarkable, and there’s no way to see or experience even a semi-decent amount of it in the short time we were there. I’d absolutely love to go back someday (though I may think twice before going back to that Starbucks!).