Category Everything is Terrible

Paris: Cafes, Consumerism, Cultural Icons

Holiday display at À la Mère de Famille

We started the day in the Marais, having coffee at Le Bouledogue. It was our final day in France and I had some shopping to do. First of all, I had some gifts to bring home, to thank people for watching over my home and my horse. I elected to buy them chocolate assortments from À la Mère de Famille, a chocolatier in business in Paris since 1761, a full fifteen years before Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence. 

Afterward, we did some personal shopping, what little our backpack space would allow. At La Plume du Marais, a stationary and gift shop, I bought a beautiful Christian Lacroix notebook that I’ve subsequently treated as too good for the likes of me to use, and at Le BHV Marais,  Jason bought a scarf with accents of metallic thread and scattered sequins. 
 
A snack at Izakaya Ramen stoked Jason’s fire for Japanese food and made him want to go get some sushi. I absolutely did not want to get sushi, and so we split up for a while so we could pursue individual interests. I thought I might like to do some more shopping, see if there was any France-only makeup in Sephora or maybe buy a bra that isn’t preceded by the word “sports” but even in one of the best cities in the world for shopping, I did not have a lot of patience for it, traveling down the escalator into the perfume-clouded shop and immediately back up.
 

Tour Saint-Jacques, the only remaining portion of a 16th century church that was destroyed during the French Revolution. Nicolas Flamel, scribe and rumored alchemist who reputedly discovered the Philosopher’s Stone and thereby immortality, is buried under the floor. He died at age 78; immortality apparently isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

On many corners in Paris were works by French artist Invader; his small tile video game mosaics are now on streetcorners around the world.

John Hamon posters are also all over the streetcorners: some color, some black and white, some defaced.

Subtle pit check.

There’s a condition that only tourists develop in Paris: Paris Syndrome. Paris has been idealized in popular media, particularly in Japan, and so when some tourists who have taken that idealized depiction deeply to heart arrive and find Paris is not a pristine, glimmering background for stick thin models who spend their days alternately shopping at high end designer stores, lounging glamorously at cafes, and on couture photoshoots but a city with all its attendant issues populated by all kinds of people, their shock and disappointment is so deep that it affects their physical health.  People experience heart palpitations, dizziness. They sweat and hallucinate.
 
These same symptoms, when experienced in Florence, are said to be caused by exposure to objects of great beauty.
 
It seems possible that any well-traveled city would have a small subset of visitors who experience these symptoms, and it’s up to the tourism board to capitalize on their particular syndrome. Seattle Syndrome could be caused by proximity to wild orca whales. San Diego Syndrome, caused by the ubiquity of the deliciousness of any restaurant that ends in “bertos”.
 
Poor Stockholm.
 
While I didn’t experience Paris Syndrome, this trip did wreak havoc on my body. I generally don’t deal well with drastic time change, at least at first. There’ll be a couple days at the start of a trip where my stomach is feeling tender, and nausea will color my first few meals. This trip was on a whole new level. From Winter Wonderland onwards, my guts were in disarray. I was so sick in the sole occupancy restroom in what is basically the middle of the dining room at Imagine that I hoped that I would just die in there so I wouldn’t accidentally make eye contact with anyone after emerging from its paper thin walls. After the terrible pizza in Montmarte, I got worse, shuddering in a restroom an average of once an hour.  At night, there was very little time for sleeping with all of the sweating and cramping I was doing. The reason I first selected the toilet row on the train to Chantilly was because I was afraid I’d need to use it, and this was after having to pay to use the restroom in Gare du Nord. In Paris, I watched a man pull down his pants and defecate in front of a statue, and near Les Halles, I was afraid I’d have no choice but to do the same thing because three quarters of the public toilets were broken. That’s basically all I did while Jason was off enjoying sushi–desperately look for a toilet. I was thirsty and tired and wrung out and fed up. And then we arrived at the Louvre.
 
The Louvre: originally a fortress, then a palace of the Kings of France, it’s the art museum that even non-museum enthusiasts know about. I knew it would take at least a full day to see properly, and though we did not have that kind of time to dedicate, we found ourselves with a free afternoon and decided a few hours would be better than nothing at all. 
 
There are signs all around the Louvre warning tourists not to purchase anything from street vendors around the site, particularly tickets, as official tickets are only sold inside the museum itself. So of course when we were approached by someone asking if we needed tickets, Jason responded in the affirmative and that is when I grabbed him by the elbow and marched him away. I’m glad his sushi wasn’t followed by a timeshare presentation or we would definitely own a week a year in a horrible condo that never has a free week available. 
 

Inside the museum, the noise was deafening, on a Wednesday, in the off season. I cannot even fathom the volume during peak season, honestly, and I used to sell guitar amplifiers for a living. My enthusiasm was draining rapidly, but instead of listening to my gut and getting out, I bought the tickets and went in deeper.  I didn’t find the going any easier inside: it was just so loud and so hot and and after watching someone attempt to climb onto a plinth to take a selfie with a statue rendered me temporarily blind with anger, I waited in the twenty person line for the restroom and discovered that I also got my period. Not just got it, it was like it was exploding out of me. And I can’t remember precisely anymore whether they didn’t have any kind of dispenser or whether it was broken or whether it ate my money because frustration has swallowed the details but I know that by the time I left that bathroom I was just done. I was so done, I couldn’t be in the museum anymore. I was so done, I started yelling at Jason on the street when he suggested that I look on the bright side.  I was so dehydrated from all of the various fluids that were shooting out of my holes that I was practically mummifying in front of him, and he thought I could find a bright side? No. NO. I AM MELLZAH, ENDER OF WORLDS!

 
And then we went into a pet store and some puppies licked my fingers and the apocalypse was temporarily averted.

Getting Medieval in Paris: Notre Dame, Unicorns, Chocolat

Place de la République, with a statue commemorating the French Revolution.

Our first stop when we arrived in Paris was our hotel for the remainder of the trip, the Hotel du Vieux Saule, in the Marais neighborhood. Of all the hotels we stayed at, this is one I would say I settled on, after shifting the budget to accommodate the palace-adjacent properties we stayed in earlier in the trip. When I think back, while I can’t say it with 100% certainty, this place springs to mind as the most likely candidate responsible for our brush with bedbugs and the deep cleaning frenzy* that ensued afterward.

Why do I point the finger in their direction? Given that I had many bites on different parts of my body, I have to assume that there wouldn’t have been enough time for it to take place on public transit (Through my winter coat? Not likely.), or really even any place where I was staying only one night. The only other hotel we stayed in more than one night was in Nantes, and just statistically based on population, it’s more likely that the Parisian hotel had bedbugs than the one in Nantes. Also, when we checked in, there was a half-consumed beverage and garbage in the minibar and some pubes in the shower that said cleaning might not be their top priority. That’s basically it. And I’m still salty that the one time we allowed staff to come in to make the bed (implying they cleaned would be a violation of my journalistic integrity), some things went missing, things with no value–souvenir ticket stubs and the like. Why? If you can’t throw away actual trash, why take it upon yourself to konmari my possessions while I’m still renting the room? Argh.

But we didn’t know about the bedbugs just yet so we commenced walking around Paris. 

Hôtel de Ville, the town hall

Science, Jules Blanchard, c. 1882

Before its closure, more than thirteen million people passed through the enormous wood and wrought iron doors at Notre Dame every year. People looking for absolution, people looking for peace, people looking for architecture, people looking for a medallion with the face of the Pope. It was the most visited monument in Paris by far, one of the most heavily toured monuments in Europe**.

This Gothic icon, built in the twelfth century, is so beloved now that it’s hard to believe that after the Napoleonic wars, it was almost demolished because it was in such a terrible state. Victor Hugo published Notre-Dame de Paris (better known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame) in 1831, which raised public awareness of its decay so that thirteen years later, “citizen-king” Louis Philippe I ordered that it be restored. (The same time period during which Les Miserables is set.)

Notre Dame took over twelve million francs to restore over twenty years. That restoration involved low quality stone and cement and even before the fire in April 2019, those restorations were starting to crumble, gargoyles cleaving from the structure to fall to the ground below, replaced with pvc pipe to drain water, the Catholic church (which permanently rents the building from the government of France, for free), not contributing nearly enough to its upkeep. Now, in the wake of the fire, it struggles more as people and businesses who vowed to donate to its restoration struggle to find their checkbooks as they already reaped the benefits of the public accolades and the news cycle has moved on. There are other practical concerns as well: how do you replace a roof made from an entire forest of trees when logging has all but eliminated the old-growth trees that would be large enough for such a project? 

That teeny tiny little speck on top of the cross on the spire is a rooster as big as an average adult human torso, filled with religious relics. 

The gargoyles/grotesques were added in the 19th century, some 600 years after the cathedral was finished.

Most of these biblical kings were beheaded during the French Revolution in a frenzy of king beheading after Louis XVI only had but one to give his country and the crowd remained unsatisfied.

Big Witch Energy

One of the rose windows, dates back to the 13th century; these survived the fire in April.

No word on whether these important relics were saved.

The doorknocker of Notre Dame; the 13th century wrought iron on these doors is so fine that a rumor began to spread that the blacksmith, Biscornet, had sold his soul to the devil for the ability to create them, because no one ever gets to be really talented at something without the credit going to someone above or way below.

Charlemagne et ses Leudes / Charlemagne and his Guards. Charlemagne laid the first stone at Notre Dame and almost assuredly no others.

Our route took us down Rue Dante, a street with many shops of general nerd interest: toy stores, comic book shops, purveyors of pulp fiction, and a creperie with intergalactic decor named Odyssey that advertised in its window its right to refuse service to Jar Jar Binks. Our destination? The Musée de Cluny, Paris’ medieval history museum, constructed on the remnants of Gallo-Roman baths, rebuilt in 1510, and currently open to the public while undergoing a major renovation.

The entrance to the Musée de Cluny was not designed with modern security in mind but a conveyer belt x-ray machine and metal detector are wedged in there regardless. Personal belongings are funneled into an alcove with a narrow entrance, passable by one person. When it was my turn, I went in to grab my things, and an impatient older woman crammed in right behind me–she couldn’t get at her belongings, and I couldn’t get out. There was literally nowhere for me to go and she’s trying to reach around me with freaking zombie arms and I’d had just about enough of being physically forced around by other human beings all week and that’s the story of how I ended up snapping “MOVE” at an old lady because “pardon” and “excusez-moi” weren’t getting through. Because honestly? Have some spatial awareness. Consider the fact that other people exist. Good grief. 

We were at the Musée de Cluny for their Magical Unicorns exhibit, along with what appeared to be every schoolchild in greater Paris. The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, having just returned from Sydney, were the centerpiece, a set of six enormous red weavings whose meaning yet remains a subject of debate; the most likely theory in my estimation is the one that posits that the series of six tapestries is the five senses, plus one to grow on. In addition to the tapestries were some seventy other pieces related to the licorne from the museum’s collection, a common subject in medieval art, when it was believed to be a real animal.

What the unicorn tapestries look like to people with undiagnosed myopia. 

Unicorn water vessel

Wild Woman with Unicorn, a chairback cover from about 1500, her dress is not made of skink tongues but hair.

Sight, The Lady with the Unicorn

Touch, The Lady with the Unicorn

A Mon Seul Desir, the final tapestry in the Lady with the Unicorn series

The only thought that went through my brain upon glancing at this display of ivory is “Look how many elephants had to die so we could collectively gaze upon more awful monk haircuts.”

Some of the original heads of the biblical kings of Notre Dame that had been removed, discovered in 1977.

This spectacular chocolate death mask of  Tutankhamun lured me into Maison Georges Larnicol though I didn’t end up buying any actual chocolate, leaving with an array of “kouignettes” and an obscene amount of tender, buttery salted caramels, both in assorted flavors . These mini kouign amann up the ante for richness. It’s the kougin amann equivalent of eating the center out of a cinnamon roll: the densest, softest part, with the highest ratio of filling to dough, except instead of cinnamon sugar, it’s a sticky-crunchy caramel swirled with raspberry, Grand Marnier, pistachio, or chocolate ganache. Given the abundance of butter, their petite size is just right. Their caramels are the best caramels I’ve ever eaten, with flavors like apple crumble, mirabelle plum, and sesame. 

Fontaine Saint-Michel, 1860

The Seine at sunset

The French term for “window shopping” is léche-vitrine, or window-licker.

The Louvre after dark

I’m not the biggest fan of the metro but I do love these swooping art nouveau entrances.

To The Smoking Dog

Amorino Gelato, mango gelato with a mango Santa macaron

We spent the rest of the day wandering around the city and snacking: croque monsieurs and frites, gelato, paprika chips…mmm, paprika chips.

 

* It was definitely a brush with bedbugs: I had six bites in a line from my upper arm to my elbow, and another four in a line on my opposite hip. The itch was so deep I could always feel the desire to scratch, over everything else. Since I never saw a physical bug and didn’t know until after I got home that I was bitten, this meant that I had to assume that my entire home was contaminated. Our luggage was garbage bagged and exiled. Our mattress was encased in plastic. Every single textile was laundered on super hot regardless of the care instructions and then quarantined in garbage bags until the entire job was finished. We vacuumed and vacuumed and vacuumed. I canceled social engagements in case there was a chance I could spread them. I warned people before they attempted to hug me. (That part was the hardest, feeling like the kind of dirty that can’t be cleaned with the people whom I most enjoy having that kind of closeness, which makes sense because it’s not like you’re often given the opportunity to hug an enemy or even a frenemy to infest them, like a Kiss of Death except it just psychologically tortures them for weeks.) The pest control guy could not find any evidence of bedbugs in our home (see: all the cleaning) but set some traps with bedbug lures which have never caught a single bedbug. I haven’t had any bites appear since and I have to conclude that I was bitten and either didn’t carry any home with me or that my quarantine and extermination efforts did the trick. Do I still feel uneasy any time I feel the faintest tickle on my body in the night? Damn right I do.

**Let’s be real, though: Notre Dame is smack in the middle of Paris, on an island in the Seine which splits the city in two, so it is in the primest of locations for foot traffic. If every time we walked by was a “visit”, Jason and I visited Notre Dame about twelve times.  

A Grey Day in Montmarte

So much of this day was just off. It was pouring for our walk to the train station in Nantes and I remained slightly soggy for hours until I was able to change at the hotel in the afternoon. Our ride to Montmarte didn’t improve my opinion of the Paris metro. The air not filled with other bodies was stuffy with body odors, and after wandering under the earth for what felt like three and three quarters miles in the seemingly endless white tiled exit tunnel, I finally emerged into an open-air market of sorts where one can purchase items that were liberated from the trash or nearby homes. This is not the Barbes/Rochechouart market but one nearby where you can buy, for instance, a remote control for a TV that is nowhere to be seen.

We stayed at Montmarte Mon Amour, a kitschy boutique hotel near the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur with a window that refused to close and where we were warned to avoid the Arc de Triomphe due to the yellow vest protests: noted.

Instead, we contemplated the number of stairs to Sacré-Cœur, the highest point in Paris, and elected to take the back road up the hill of rue du Chevalier de la Barre.

Basilique du Sacré-Cœur

I didn’t particularly care for my visit to Sacré-Cœur. It probably has a lot to do with my midwestern Protestant upbringing– indoctrinating a child with Sunday school every week plus mandatory weekly Wednesday evening confirmation class for three years plus two summers in a row of bible camp tends to make the lessons linger. It bothers me to see churches stuffed with riches while people are sleeping in those howling metro tunnels. It bothers me to see churches that charge you to light a candle or that have vending machines of medallions with the pope’s face on them (what is a graven image if not that?)  even though I do recognize that having a constant stream of visitors flowing through your church is a different sort of business from being a non-famous church. 

Around Sacré-Cœur were many aggressive street vendors selling light up Eiffel Towers and locks for a new fence for tourists to menace. We had a snack at nearby La Galette des Moulins and learned that while our train chugged out of the station in Nantes, protesters blocked the runway of the Nantes airport and tollooths throughout France. We learned about the vandalization of the Arc de Triomphe, the burning of an entire street of cars three miles away. 

They look like they’re all blopping.

Rue du Mont Cenis Stairs

We had dinner at Pink Flamingo, where Jason promptly spilled nearly his entire beer and we shared one of the worst pizzas I’ve ever eaten. I feel like it had to have been an off pie; people consistently rave about this place online but the pizza I had was overwhelmed by thick, underbaked, slippery cheese. 

It was one of those days where if I was at home, I would just call it a mediocre day and have it over with but since I was IN PARIS it feels like I have to pretend that the mediocrity was somehow meaningful, that I need to display gratitude because another in my place may have enjoyed it.  But the only thing I was grateful for that day was the knowledge that the next morning, we’d be moving on to somewhere else.