This post is the conclusion to the story of my (increasingly less) recent adventure in Europe (Sorry folks! Sometimes life just moves so quickly…) The first installment can be experienced in my previous post. I also have more pictures posted on my Flickr account. And now, without further ado:
Traveling from Strasbourg to Paris was like traveling from Cedar Rapids to New York City. It’s the type of difference that is so drastic it forces you to actually say to yourself “Wow. I’m not where I was.” And your heart races. Although Strasbourg is no small town, it certainly feels like one. Paris is big, and it feels big.
My first deep confession for this post is that I did not love Paris. I’m glad to have been there and I did enjoy my experience, but I don’t anticipate ever going back. It was a good one time visit for a girl who cares little about food or fashion, has learned only a handful of French words, and knows how to correctly pronounce zero of them. The city and the people were far too impersonal for an extroverted Midwesterner like me.
The first clear indication that we had entered the capital city was the traffic patterns. I hesitate to call them “patterns” because this American driver saw no pattern in their driving whatsoever. What really got me is that they did not have lanes painted on the road. How can they not have lanes painted on the road? Seriously. How? The impressive thing is that they still managed to have lanes of traffic, and they generally avoided slamming into one another. (Although there was considerable evidence that Parisians are not timid in applying the proper definition of a bumper.)
My goal on our first night was to locate and consume a meal that was worthy of Paris’ culinary reputation. I’m sure there are dozens of books and websites that could direct a visitor to the finest cuisine in the city. Our method was a bit more sophisticated than that: we walked toward the hotel until we were too cold to move, and then we went in the nearest open door. Fortunately, our warm escape also managed to live up to my expectations. I had a delectable meal of grilled salmon and ratatouille. (Yes, I tried ratatouille. Yes, I did so solely because of the Pixar movie. And yes, you would do it, too. For the same reason.)
We noticed immediately that our waiter spoke English quite well (which we very much appreciated). So, being the extroverted American that I am, I decided to congratulate him on his successful conquest of the English language. His polite response was, “I’m Australian.” “Well, sir, you speak your native language very well.” (Smooth, Jenna. Real smooth.) Our favorite moment, though was about halfway through the meal when he came running over to our table to proclaim, “You are all so lucky! It’s snowing in Paris!” We all smiled and rejoiced and looked gleefully out the window. (Of course, what we didn’t have the heart to tell him was that Iowans don’t equate a bit of snow with a bit of luck unless it involves school being cancelled.) However, our walk back to the hotel proved him right: the snowfall in the city really was rather charming. Besides, from that point on we had something to laugh about, rather than complain about, every time the flurries flew. (So thank you, Mr. Australian Waiter Guy, for providing us with a cheerier perspective for the rest of the trip.)
The second day in Paris was my favorite. We started out the day by touring the Palace of Versailles. I will not attempt to describe its overwhelming extravagance. All I can say is that seeing Versailles was all I needed to understand the French Revolution. No man returning empty-handed to his starving family could pass by those gates and calm the rage in his heart. That being said, Versailles was beautiful, and I enjoyed exploring it. My only regret is that it was too dreary outside to tour the gardens. If ever I did return to France, it would be in the summer, to walk in the gardens of Versailles.
From there we headed back to Paris to visit Notre Dame. The inside was beautiful, but the best part was climbing the stairs to the bell tower. I had no idea they allowed people to do that, but I like heights and I like gargoyles so my day was completely made.
Our final day in Paris was full, but fairly relaxed. We visited the U.S. Embassy where we sat through a lecture from members of the U.S. Commercial Service. The two things I remember are that their job is to help American businesses succeed in the French market, and that we had official permission from the United States government to eat at McDonalds while in France (clearly, a selective memory).
Apparently I was not the only one craving a cheeseburger by that point, because immediately after that meeting over half of us set out together to find a Mickey D’s. Eventually we succeeded and we were rewarded with a feeling of home. (And a needed one at that. This was the only day of the trip that I felt homesick.)
After lunch we all met back up and visited The Louvre. The Mona Lisa looks pretty much like I expected (a lot of people say she’s smaller than they think she’ll be, but I thought she was reasonably sized.) My favorite piece was a painting called “La Jeune Martyre” by Paul Delaroche. It’s not an uplifting piece by any means, but it drew me in and held me there for a bit (which is what I think art ought to do.)
The rest of our time in Paris involved a stroll down the Avenue de Champs-Élysées (one of the most expensive strips of real estate in the world), a good long pause in front of the Arc de Triomphe (built by Napoleon and later made a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for WWI), and a wonderful evening relaxing in a quaint crepe shop.
The next morning we were up and off to the destination that I had been most looking forward to: London!
Here comes this post’s second deep confession: I cried in the customs line. Like a big, blubbery baby (actually it was kind of subtle, but crying in a well-lit, public place never feels all that subtle). Here’s the deal: I was born in England (I’m an Air Force brat) and I have not returned since infancy. I remember absolutely nothing about being there, but I have always, always wanted to go back. So there I stood in the customs line realizing that my life dream was about to be achieved (add that to the stress of eight days of travel) and I broke down and cried. Most people didn’t notice, but the guy who checked my passport wiped his finger across his cheek and shrugged, as if to ask what was wrong. So I told him the truth: “I’m just so excited to go back to England.” He clearly did not speak English so he just sent me on my way with a sympathetic nod. (That was utterly embarrassing, but I found consolation in the fact that that man will forever think that “excited” is English for “absolutely distraught.”)
We rode the Eurostar from Paris to London. The Eurostar, as you likely know, goes through the Channel Tunnel. I have always thought that the Chunnel was cool; I still think that saying I’ve been through the Chunnel is cool; actually going through the Chunnel is super lame. The train goes in (which you barely notice), it is black out your window for about half an hour, and the train comes out (which you notice if you are awake, but it’s still not cool.) And that’s the Chunnel! (I don’t mean to sound cynical about it. I just don’t want anyone thinking that you can see sharks swim by or anything. Because in the past there may have been an unspecified person or so who was a bit disappointed that she, ahem, that they couldn’t look out the window and see the ocean floor. I just want to spare you the pain and sadness that any random previous travelers may have felt when they saw blackness, not sharks.)
London was amazing! I absolutely loved it. That city was the perfect blend of Washington D.C. and New York City (a strong foundation driven by an excited energy). It was refreshing to be where the people were more lively (although not quite “American” lively), and where the menus, signs, price tags, maps, posters, guidebooks, t-shirts and graffiti were written in English.
My one goal for London was to accomplish my long-time dream of seeing Les Miserables on the West End (London’s Broadway). Les Miserables has been my favorite musical since childhood and since Victor Hugo was French, it has just always made sense to me that I should see a European show in Europe. I knew that my chances of getting tickets were slim, but I allowed myself to “dream the dream.” (Overtly corny moment right there. I couldn’t resist.) After our initial tour of the city, three of us made our way to the half-off ticket booth in Leicester Square. They told us that our only hope was to buy the tickets straight from the box office, so we went on to Queens Theatre. They had two tickets left for that night’s performance (if you recall, there were three of us), so my only chance was the next evening. I asked and held my breath for an unbearably long moment before he responded that there were three tickets left. Ladies and gentlemen, we got the last three tickets. And £45 later this young lady had a brand new spring in her step.
The cherry-on-top of this day was walking back through Leicester Square and seeing, in person, none other than Denzel Washington. Apparently the movie Flight was premiering in the U.K. and we just happened to walk back through the Square in time to hear the announcer prep the crowd for his appearance. By the time he came out, we had located a reasonable spot where we could get a good glimpse. My camera’s zoom allowed for this paparazzi shot:
The next day we explored London through the great blizzard of 2013. And by “blizzard” I mean a predicted ten centimeters of snow of which less than three stuck. They cancelled school. For three CENTIMETERS of snow. (Dear sweet Brits, how amusingly timid you seemed to us.) It was a slow steady snowfall that lasted all day and was all the more beautiful because of that random waiter in Paris.
We visited the Tower of London where I saw The Crown Jewels and made friends with Henry VIII:
And of course you can’t encounter any reminder of Henry VIII without a reminder of Herman’s Hermits and the best song ever:
That whole day was devoted to making sure we made it to Les Mis on time. By 7:30 in the morning I was planning how not to be late for a showing at 7:30 that night.
That made for an incredibly leisurely day, because every step I took was one step closer to Leicester Square. We had an early dinner and shopped for souvenirs (*snicker*) in the theatre district before making our way to Queens Theatre.
Les Miserables was undoubtedly my favorite part of the trip. It is such an emotional show, and the company did a fantastic job of bringing it to life. I am always fascinated by how sets, lights, props, and costumes can take a single stage and turn it into so many different things. Les Mis is performed on a rotating stage, which allows for an extra display of creativity. I was sincerely impressed and delighted by that experience.
All the shows must have let out at the same time because the Tube out of Leicester Square was packed. (In Paris the metro cars were always packed; in London they only were this once.) I had to squish in, and I ended up face to face with a guy my age that I did not know. My mind said, “This is super awkward and obvious. Quick! Do something!” So my mouth said, “I guess we’re going to be friends now.” (Facepalm.) Fortunately, he responded with a joke, “Talking? On the tube!” And my unnecessary response, “I’m American.” After which we all laughed. (I think I mentioned previously, but Europeans just don’t talk to strangers as much as Americans do.) We talked about the weather (you will recall we had lived through a blizzard) and it turned out that his roommates were from Australia and had never seen snow before that very day. (All of a sudden our interactions with that waiter in Paris made so much more sense.)
On our final day in London we visited the Palace of Westminster which is where Parliament meets. I had learned about Her Majesty’s Government in a comparative government class so it was really interesting to see the chambers where the House of Lords and House of Commons meet. The most intriguing thing I learned was that Brits call the Revolutionary War the American War of Independence. The tour guide said it without a blink, but I was struck that it had a different name in the U.K. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that they might feel a bit sensitive about the defiant nature of the word “revolution,” so really it makes sense. (Especially since they lost and all.) Still, that was a new idea to me.
The next morning we were loaded onto the bus by 6 a.m. and on our way to Heathrow Airport. The big hubbub was about the 23 kilogram weight limit for checked bags. After all, we had each gathered our fair share of odds and ends from across Europe. I was particularly concerned because my checked bag contained a weighty coffee table book that I had purchased in Frankfurt. (I had absolutely no intention of carrying that thing through a chain of airports.) Fortunately, my bag weighed in at 22.3 kg. Dangerously close. But not quite there. Win.
Thirteen hours later I found myself sitting on the runway at the Eastern Iowa Airport waiting impatiently to be allowed off the plane. It had been a such a great experience. I had an amazing time in Europe! (I’m still not tired of saying it.) However there is something so wonderful about being home. And these hooligans are part of it: