Viva la France

My first 24 hours in Paris have been fairly great, but only after an auspicious start, I must admit. 

Monday night, I was packing and preparing for my flight from Cork to Paris the next morning when we got word on the radio – a serious storm was quickly approaching northern France and all Paris airports were to be closed from 8 p.m. that night until 10 a.m. the next morning. My flight wasn’t due to leave Cork until 10:50 a.m., arriving in Paris at 1:35 p.m. local time, but I was nervous. What if the flights were off schedule, or worse, cancelled? What if we couldn’t get there on Tuesday at all? Hubby was due to be traveling on business Wednesday through Friday and would not have been able to pick us up if we were delayed a day. I’m a worrier, what can I say?

Well, I’m thrilled to report that all’s well that ends well. The airports reopened; my flight from Cork to Paris was only delayed about 15 minutes; and short of a couple sorta terrifying air pockets, we arrived safe, sound and pretty much on time.

Traveling solo with an infant gets a little tricky, and Paris is not proving to be very baby-friendly. Baby did fantastic getting through Cork airport and we navigated the flight just fine, in spite of my somehow having forgotten to pack baby wipes and/or a pacifier in the bag. (What was I thinking?) However, once we landed in Paris, it was a whole other story. For starters, I found out that the stroller we’d checked in Cork as we boarded the plane would not be returned to me at the gate; instead, I’d have to schlep the baby all the way through to baggage claim in his carrier, along with a purse, a backpack and a diaper bag. 

Charles de Gaulle airport is, as my husband would say, one big fuck-off place. With clear covered tunnels criss-crossing in never-ending directions, I felt like I was stuck in a giant human hamster cage. So there I am, loaded down like a pack mule, inching my way through the what feels like a miles-long line at the passport inspection. Several folks smiled politely at my sleeping son as we crept along a few steps at a time, but it was two young French girls directly behind me who really stepped up and came to my rescue. When they urged me to cut to the front of the line, I was hesitant, not wanting to violate any unspoken French rules of etiquette right off the bat. But they insisted, one of them grabbed the baby carrier and starting plowing her way through the queue with me trailing behind. She deposited me at the front of the line, smiled politely and returned to her place with me spouting “merci” after her like I had Tourette’s. 

From there, passports duly stamped, we were on to the baggage claim where, lo and behold, the stroller was there waiting. Having had to bring along a month’s worth of clothes, etc. for me and the baby on this trip, I think I did extremely well to limit my packing to one small suitcase for him and one good-sized rolling bag for me. Silly me, I had expected hubby would be there to meet us at the bag claim and help with the suitcases. Nope. We would have to traverse yet another long hall first to meet him in the arrivals area. Now picture me, trying to push a stroller forward with one hand and drag a loaded trolley cart behind me with the other. This is where the stereotypical French rudeness really became apparent – not one person took pity and offered to help me, even the guards and airport employees who flat out watched me struggle along. The passengers practically cursed me and ran me over in their haste to get by as either one or the other of my vehicles veered off course toward a wall every few feet.

By the time I managed to get out to the arrivals hall and hubby came running up, I had worked up a sweat and was so frustrated I burst into tears. After a few minutes of calming down, we were on to the next part of the adventure – the Metro. If Charles de Gaulle airport is a hamster cage, the Metro is a labyrinth series of mouse tunnels. 

The Metro is really a cool thing in concept, but with a baby, c’est impossible. I have no idea how people in wheelchairs get around on it. Maybe they just don’t. There seem to be hardly any elevators, and the ticket-controlled entries and exits are so narrow, our stroller wouldn’t fit through several of them. More than once, we resorted to taking the carseat off the stroller, collapsing the stroller down and carrying each through on its own. Yikes. Not to mention there are about a million stairs up and down to deal with as well. 

One other point I’d like to make about the Metro – it is prime property for busking. Every time I’ve been on it in the past 24 hours, I’ve been treated to live musical performances. The first was a young gent with an accordion, next came a surprisingly good string performance of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” worthy of a MUCH nicer venue than the Metro tunnel, and then finally a dreadlocked guy cranking out an acoustic version of Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” in a heavy French accent. I would have given him a few euros for style points alone if I’d had any change on me. 

Anyway, we finally arrived at Gare du Nord, where we said fuck this nonsense and smartly grabbed a taxi to the apartment from there. Our digs for the next two weeks are just off the Place de Bastille, one of the oldest and most historic areas in the city, now a bustling area full of shops, cafes and an ultra-modern opera house. The Bastille itself perches sedately at the center of a huge roundabout with streets shooting off in all directions. 

The apartment itself is dollhouse TINY, but in pristine condition and decorated very nicely. We have a small sitting room, one bedroom, a miniature kitchen, a bathroom and a loft sleeping area. The furnishings are quality and the windows and ceilings are tall, letting in a surprising amount of light. Exposed wood beams on the ceiling give the whole place a rustic feel. It’s a cozy little home as opposed to the antiseptic style of most hotel rooms. The two flights of rickety stairs we have to climb to get in are going to kill me, or give me buns of steel. Which is actually a good thing to offset the amount of fattening food I plan to consume over the next two weeks. 

So for my first meal in Paris, I wanted something authentically French, but nothing formal or stuffy. A nice bistro sounded just right, and Lord knows there are plenty to choose from! We first took a stroll around the Rue de Saint-Antoine, taking in all that the avenue has to offer. My mouth watered as we passed food stand after food stand, each offering its own specialty – fabulous breads and pastries, glowing fruits and vegetables, cold cuts and meats, crepes with all sorts of sweet and savory fillings, sushi, Chinese food, cheeses like you’ve never seen, and gorgeous chickens spinning on a large rotisserie, their glistening juices falling to flavor a bed of peeled potatoes roasting just underneath. I wanted to eat everything I saw. 

We settled on a quaint little cafe called Le Rempart for dinner. The owner was good to accommodate us with the stroller and the menu offered casual eats such as salads, a variety of croque sandwiches and a few plated entrees. Hubby ordered a beer, and I a glass of the house red wine, eager to try out my rusty French. To me, it’s always a relief to receive exactly what I intended to get when ordering in a foreign language. I’m always nervous that I’m not pronouncing something correctly and will end up with a plate of brains or liver instead of the chocolate cake I wanted. 

For my supper, I opted for a quiche Parisienne chalkboard special and hubby got a croque Italianne sandwich, both with green salads. The meals were simply prepared and presented, nothing flashy or trendy, just good quality ingredients cooked simply and well. My quiche was studded with tomato slices and bits of savory ham, and the salad was just green lettuce with a few more tomato slices and a splash of tangy creamy dressing. I realized as I was eating it that I hadn’t had a salad in about a week and really missed it! Hubby’s sandwich was an open-faced delight of the same flavorful country ham, fresh mozzarella, tomato and a sprinkling of herbes de provence on a generous slice of baguette. 

Not ready to call it a night just yet, we ducked into another cafe for another drink. I might have mumbled a little, but the server couldn’t understand my request for another glass of wine, which immediately shook my confidence. I got flustered and pussed out, letting hubby take it from there and order for me, as he seemed to be having better luck getting his point across. 

After a sound sleep, I awoke this morning to a fantastically sunny day, thrilled to be in Paris! It’s still cold, but the sun more than makes up for it. Hubby had an unexpected free day due to a travel scheduling glitch, and we decided to take a long walk. I had my heart set on a pan au chocolat, but since it was nearly 11 a.m. by the time I got the baby fed, both of us dressed and ready to go, I worried we might have missed our breakfast window at most cafes and be well into the lunch service. Fortunately, I needed have given it a second thought.

A small patisserie/boulangerie (that’s a pastry/bread bakery for the non-French readers) called Miss Manon suited me to a tee. A glimpse through the window of row upon row of the most delectable pastries imaginable beckoned us inside, and we were glad they did. A couple of friendly young ladies behind the counter took our order (understanding me perfectly, thank God!), served us and made over the baby. I felt right at home. The decor was warm and simple and the pan au chocolat was a little bite of heaven – flaky pastry crust that shattered with each bite to reveal tender layers beneath and parallel tracks of deep dark chocolate running through. Washed down with a cafe au lait, I could eat this every morning for the rest of my life and be totally happy. I hope to come back here for lunch and try some of their sandwiches, or at the very least, sample a few more of the tempting pastries on display. The baguettes looked magnificent, too, jutting out of their baskets like fragrant missiles of goodness. Yum, yum, and yum.

We continued our walk down to the Seine and across to the Ile St. Louis, looping up around Notre Dame, across into the Latin Quarter, cutting over again to the Louvre and making a pit stop into another cafe by the Palais Royale for a warm-up (espresso for hubby and a hot chocolate for me). Our feet growing tired by this time and the baby sleeping soundly in his stroller, we wrestled our way back through the Metro to the apartment for a well-earned rest. 

Now, what to have for dinner tonight??? So much to eat, so little time.

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