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Friday, April 11, 2003

Most Amazing Day in the History of Paris

Our last day in Paris was without a doubt the finest spring day this city has ever experienced for as long as records have been kept. I had about as good a day as I could ever hope to have. I think that one of the secrets to this life is the ability to recognize those lapses in the ordinary that are perfection as they happen in your life.

It was cool when we left the hotel in the morning at around 10:30 but it was sunny. From the days previous I knew it would get warmer. We decided to walk to Sacre Coeur. I immediately got us a bit off course (Not lost!). When I finally determined our position on the map I decided we were near the Gare du Nord.

Not that getting a bit off course is a big deal because all it means is that you get to see some new things. We happened by a post office where I bought some post card stamps. In an adjacent café we scribbled a few cards and mailed them before heading up to Montmartre.

Paris is almost perfectly flat except this one lung-busting hill. On this hill beneath Sacre Coeur lies a huge shopping district where vendors spill out onto the sidewalks. It’s sort of like an enormous outdoor K-mart. By the time we got here the day was warm and sunny and the streets were teaming with pedestrians. From this point on in the day wherever we went it looked like a huge football stadium crowd had just been let out.

We scaled the steps to the basilica and took a couple of obligatory pictures. The view on this day was a bit hazy either from the fog that had yet to burn off or air pollution. I’ll choose to think it was the former. There were way too many people here on this day to look inside the church so we walked into the narrow streets of Montmartre.

I have mixed feelings on tourist areas. On the one hand I tend to avoid manufactured tourist things like Vegas, Disneyland, or resort type vacations. On the other hand I won’t shy away from everything that attracts tourist because they usually are there for a reason. The reason tourists flock to Montmartre is because it is absolutely adorable. Every single outdoor table in every single restaurant was occupied on this lovely Saturday and I was thinking that perhaps we’d have to go to some other area for lunch.

We walked into Place du Tertre and found a table in the sun at La Mere Catherine. This place has been here since 1793. It’s hard to go wrong with a place that has red and white checkered linen that’s been around for a couple of hundred years.

I got a prix fixe thing for 15E that included quiche Lorraine, chicken with fried potatoes, and dessert. I couldn’t imagine there being a more perfect day to sit outside and have a few beers with lunch. I would have stayed longer but I wanted to give up our great little table for another couple who might want to do the same.

Down the stairs from Place du Tertre is the Place des Abbesses. Besides the more heavily touristed Place du Tertre, this is probably one of the most beautiful squares in Paris. Place des Abbesses also has one of the funkiest wrought iron metro station entrances that we passed as we descended into a very long set of stairs to take the train to the Cité station.

The number four line was mobbed on this Saturday afternoon and when we ascended out of the station the square in front of Notre Dame Cathedral was as packed as a rock concert. I don’t even think we bothered with a picture as we crossed the Pont au Double and entered the Latin Quarter (which should now be called the Greek Quarter what with all the gyro joints and tavernas).

Once again the crowds in these narrow streets were incredible. Every place we past was full and spilling out into the street. We were looking for some picnic lunch stuff for our train ride on the following day. The Latin Quarter is pretty much completely given over to tourist joints so we crossed the Boulevard Saint Michel into Saint-Germain-des-Prés which is also heavily touristed but has lots of shops.

We bought about 30 pounds of different kinds of cheeses and a couple different kinds of dried sausage. When it comes to buying French cheese and sausage I always prefer to error on the side of excess. By this time I had definitely done an excess amount of walking for the day and I needed a beer.

There must be literally thousands of cute, quaint bars, restaurants, cafes, and bistros in Paris. The French posses an embarrassment of riches in this department and I think they should be forced to sell off a couple hundred to needy cities like Seattle. They wouldn’t miss four or five cafes with great looking facades and charming interiors. Walking past all of these great-looking places I felt like I did in the Louvre when I was so over-dosed on beauty that I walked past café masterpieces without giving them the time of day. But then again, I guess Paris needs all of its establishments because on this sunny afternoon every single outdoor table in every single café was full.

I was beginning to get into a pissy mood about this time and I needed my medicine. My medicine is beer or wine or something. I couldn’t find a beer pharmacy. For the love of Christ could someone please get up and give me a seat at one of these adorable cafes so I can get a goddamn beer? Please? I knew that the law of averages would work in my favor and when it comes to getting a drink I’m no quitter.

The place where I did a place to sit was one of the only places so far in Paris that annoyed me. It was a café that was trying hard to be hip and cool with hip and cool servers who were being cool and hip but weren’t doing much serving. It took forever for the hip and cool kid to bring me my medicine. Perhaps my annoyance--and my violation of my own views on European service--was the result of my low blood alcohol levels which for me can be as dangerous as the lack of insulin is for diabetics.

After a little more shopping I asked someone if there was a Metro stop near by. But of course, there was one only a half-block away which even happened to be on the number 4 line that we needed. The Paris Metro system is wonderfully convenient and idiot-proof to use for the most part. You can get to within a couple blocks of anywhere in the city without stepping above ground and for the price of a single ticket of 1.3E.

My hours have been atrocious this entire trip. I get to bed at around 4 and wake up at 8 or even earlier. I’ve had a couple of naps but I have really been burning the candle at both ends, to put it mildly. What I am probably burning are bazillions of brain cells. I am just too pumped up to sleep for the most part so I’ll just deal with being brain dead stupid and tired.

We have been running around all day sightseeing or museum trotting or whatever. Perhaps after a short nap in the early evening we go out for a coffee or a drink or both. After pretty late dinners we’ve been walking all over looking at new neighborhoods or looking for another place to get a late-night drink. I have been getting addicted to cigars again as Cubans are fairly inexpensive here. A cigar is like having a dog: It’s a good excuse to go for a really long, epic walk.

It was after 1:00 a.m. and places were closing right and left. We walked into the Montorgrueil area and although we found the lack of automobile traffic peaceful and welcoming, it didn’t look good for us finding a place that was still open at this late hour.

We walked by a place that looked like a new sort of art deco café on the outside but the heavy bass of club music could be heard coming from the darkly-tinted windows. It definitely looked open and we were definitely looking for a place that was open but preferred not to go to one of the ubiquitous hip clubs with doors blocked by Russian mafia thugs posing as doormen.

No thug blocking the doors here, just a good-looking skinny kid who brought us to a table. We moved over to the swell-looking bar made of butcher block slabs with individual cubby holes cut out every couple of feet. This was a cocktail bar but we ordered wine just to be on the safe side. After watching the bartenders for a while we decided that they could actually make a decent cocktail. The 9E cosmopolitans were totally worth it this late at night.

It may seem that we had done a lot of dinking on this trip from what I have written up until now but not only had I not really had a huge buzz; I had never woken up with anything remotely resembling a hangover. The cosmopolitan was good but at 9E I probably wouldn't be waking up with a hangover on this particular morning.

The interesting thing about this place (either interesting or stupid or cool or avant-garde or pretentious or bad business or minimalist or whatever) was the fact that the place didn’t have a name. The business card simply stated the address (34 Rue Etienne Marcel) in the corner of a blank white card. We were wondering how people talk about this place. Do you call it “The place with no name” or do you say, “I’m going to…” and leave a pause? It was kind of like when Prince had his little attack of hipness and decided he didn’t need a name. I used to just burp when I meant to say Prince. The next time you are in Paris I suggest you stop by for a drink at …. and order a cosmopolitan.

Right now I am doing laundry down the street from the hotel at 8 a.m. after getting to bed at around 5:15 this morning. I probably look like shit but I feel fine. I’ll sleep when I get home. That is assuming that I ever get home as these washers are taking for-freaking-ever. As the other customers leave the Laundromat they bid me farewell which I think is a nice little touch of the "unfriendly" French.

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