Poetry in Paris
To me, Paris is possibility. A city of words characterized by great literature, poetry, and grand claims made for political and romantic gain. A city where you could find a one-room apartment overlooking the Seine to clack-clack-clack your way to a new life on an old typewriter. A city where you don’t have to reinvent yourself, but can be fully yourself, even with all the dark, cynical, and sharp bits. Paris doesn’t care if you’re there, but, if you’re going to bother with being there, then really BE there.
It will always be Victor Hugo’s city in my eyes.
“He who contemplates the depths of Paris is seized with vertigo. Nothing is more fantastic. Nothing is more tragic. Nothing is more sublime.”
Our visit to Paris was my fourth and Kody’s first. We used hotel points to score free accommodations, but the trade-off was that we were on the outskirts of the metro near Versailles. The area we were staying in didn’t have much to offer except the learning of a new Travel Truth: Location is not separate from value. Although our accommodations were free, we were 45 minutes travel time by bus + train to the center of the city. The 45 minutes did not include time spent waiting for the bus and the train. The effort of travel makes you feel like you can only make the trip into the city once, so there’s unrealistic pressure to fit everything into a short time span. When your accommodations are nearby, you can take breaks, make small jaunts, and enjoy yourself more. Being in Paris was already overwhelming for me, so the distance from our hotel stressed me out even more.
We decided to take ourselves on a walking tour of some of the big sights on our first day, since Kody had never seen any of them. Our bus and train journey went smoothly and we popped out of a metro station directly into the Luxembourg gardens. The garden was first created in 1612 and includes the famed Medici fountain as well as large lawns, tree-lined pathways, and a circular basin where people sail model boats. There are a lot of lovely places to walk or sit and when we arrived there were tourists and Parisians taking their lunches near the basin.
It’s the type of place that makes you imagine your Parisian life. You know, the one where you ride a bicycle with a basket that’s filled with baguettes and roughly loved books of poetry. The life where you have the time and financial stability to lounge on a blanket at a park in the middle of the day debating philosophy and sipping wine. The life where the sun always shines when you’re happy and it always rains when you’re sad. It’s a place that makes you idealize Paris, but also makes you understand why so many people idealize it. Paris, for all of its faults, is a beautifully constructed city.
From there we made a beeline to Popelini for cream puffs. That’s all they make there and the puffs are displayed under glass in the uncrowded style of a high-end jewelry store rather than a bakery. Choux pastry being something of an art in Paris, this presentation made sense to me. I got the pecan praline and it was absolutely divine.
Rather than following a strict tourist itinerary for the day, we followed our fancies. From Popelini we made our way to the Seine, passing the Musee d’Orsay and historic riverside book stalls along the way. The book stalls sell old and new books, art prints, and old fashioned advertisement posters. In my Paris Life, I think I’d like to own one of these. Down by the water, we were fascinated by motorbikes that had re-emerged after long stints under the surface and looking very much worse for wear.
Along the Seine were various docked boat restaurants and food stalls with sitting areas. We decided to split a pizza and have a couple drinks. Ham and mushroom pizza is very popular in Europe and has easily become my favorite.
After eating, we sauntered slowly along the Seine to the Pont Alexandre III, one of the most famous and ornate bridges in the city, which connects the Champs-Elysees quarter with the Invalides. Although the bridge is over 100 years old, it has maintained its glamour and grandeur with intricate sculptures, golden features, and colossal columns at each end. You simply cannot walk across this bridge without becoming obsessed with at least one portion of it. For me, it was the street lamps. I just love when things are allowed to be both functional and beautiful. For Kody, it was the lions guarding the entry. They look out over the water with a calm and serene sort of power. The bridge is also the famed site of Kody’s Parisian Photo Shoot during which I captured two of my most favorite photos of my most favorite human.
We traversed the bridge to the other side in order to reach the George V, a Four Seasons hotel renowned for its opulent and spectacular flower displays. It was highly recommended by our friend, Ashleigh, and since Kody is a total Green Thumb, it seemed worth the diversion. On our way, we passed the Petit Palau’s art museum. It’s such a wonderful example of Parisian architecture — blue-grey roof and tan limestone decorated extensively and carefully.
The flower display at George V was indeed spectacular. Fresh flowers were suspended from the ceiling and arranged in a curtain underneath an arch. Tightly packed roses in the center of the reception area filled the room with their delicate smell and everyone seemed at ease in the relaxed luxury. Everyone, that is, except us. Nothing will make you feel more like your bank account total than when you’re waiting for someone to politely ask you to leave a place you clearly don’t belong in. We (nervously) rested our feet for a few moments before leaving.
We were granted a weather day that threatened rain and sunshine intermittently. As soon as it seemed like one was going to win the day, dark clouds would cover the sun or a brilliant ray would poke through. We took each in their turn as we set a course for Eiffel’s Tower.
My favorite view of the Eiffel Tower is from between the buildings on one of the streets leading into the park. I love to see the monument surrounded by the city it’s meant to represent. By the time we arrived to the park, the clouds had rallied and taken control of the sky. To further dampen our visit (see what I did there?), the park around the tower was fenced off in preparation of a large-scale art installation and the square under it was covered with construction scaffolding and equipment. It did not make for a picturesque or particularly enjoyable scene. Luckily, I’d already been to the top a couple of times and Kody wasn’t interested in making the trek, so we found a patch of grass and sat and chatted for a while instead.
What came next was a bit of a bonehead traveler move. We walked the couple of miles from the Eiffel Tower to the Catacombs thinking that we’d be able to purchase tickets and enjoy a visit once we arrived. About this, we had been completely mistakenly. The people who had had the common sense to purchase their tickets ahead of time were in a line that made a loop of the entire building and went down the block. I guess we’d all had the same idea of hiding out from the drizzling rain down in the catacombs with the creepies and the crawlies.
Rather than waiting in the rain, we found a sidewalk café to share a croque madame in and people watch.
We made our way back to our hotel to prepare to spend the next day at the Palace of Versailles.
I was very excited to see the palace because I’d never be there before and it’s such a celebrated example of French baroque style. The French Revolution is one of my favorite historical time periods (thank you again, Mr. Hugo) and I was looking forward to learning more about Marie-Antoinette and its other ill-fated residents. My sister sent me a book about magicians sent during that time period which I had recently devoured, so I was fully primed for a day at Versailles.
Even when you buy your tickets ahead of time, you have to wait in an enormous line to enter the palace grounds. We were smashed between separate tour groups in a closely monitored serpentine coil. The palace was impressive even from our captive view. High golden fences surrounding the front courtyard and the red brick rising up to the blue-grey roof. It looked lovely even up against the overcast sky that seemed like it would characterize our visit to Paris.
Once we made our way inside, I immediately got distracted. Did you know that there is a Laduree in the palace of Versailles? I didn’t, but I was surely going to take advantage of it. Sense would told me to wait to buy my macarons until we were leaving the palace, but I was having none of that.
This portion of the post will be more like a photo essay. We had audio guides while we moved through (more like cattle being hustled through corridors than royalty sauntering the halls), so we learned a lot about the art, architecture, and aristocrats that had graced the palace. Rather than give you a history lesson (and have to admit to not remembering most of what I learned), I’ll simply share the photos of the luxury and wealth that absolutely dropped from every corner of the space. I’ve never seen such beautiful ceilings! Such wonderfully textured wallpaper! Such small beds covered with such rich and colorful fabric! It’s a carnival for the eyes and fit my idea of the Sun King and, later, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. It’s no wonder the poor citizens of Paris rose up against the people who lived in this manner in this manor. It was difficult to feel like I could take my time and absorb everything because there were so many people inside the palace, even though entries are time-controlled. We were constantly being jostled and propelled forward. I just tried to remember where I was and enjoy myself despite wanting to punch everyone.
After exploring the interior of the palace, we made our way out onto the vast grounds surrounding it. Although it looked like the weather was finally on our side, we got caught in a surprisingly heavy downpour while we were wandering down some of the garden lanes. We hid out for a little while to see if it would let up, but it didn’t. Unfortunately, we had to cut our visit short and run back to our car soaking wet.
The next day was full of highs and lows for us. The weather planned to behave by being decent for a solid day and there was no prospect of rain in the forecast. We made the trek into the city in the morning to attend a Croissant & Breakfast Pastries baking class at La Cuisine Paris. I had booked this class for myself a couple months before our trip and excitedly told Kody about it. He said, “I like to learn things, too,” and we decided to do the class together.
On our way to class, we passed by the Notre Dame. The historic building was still in tragic disarray following the fire just a few weeks prior and it hurt my heart to see it. The windows were all covered and there was scaffolding all around. The entire building was fenced off and the iconic spire was noticeably missing from the skyline.
The croissant class was taught by a French-American pastry chef named Eric. There were 8 students total and everyone had varying degrees of familiarity with baking. I had made puff pastry for danishes, but had never tried making croissants, and Kody was a complete novice. We got to work as a team to create croissants, pain au raisin, pain au chocolat, and savory cheese twists. It was 3 hours of baking and learning and, at the end, we got to try everything we’d made and bring it with us when we left. I wish we had had more time to take the other classes offered at La Cuisine!
Following our mastery of classic French pastry, we walked about a mile to visit the museum housed in Victor Hugo’s former home. I’m sure you’ve noticed what an impact Victor Hugo has had on me — he’s my favorite author and a person whose words have a lot of meaning for me. My excitement as we reached the door was immediately deflated. The museum was closed for renovations for the entire summer. It’s good not to have your heart set on just one thing when you’re traveling and I was still glad to have briefly darkened Hugo’s doorstep.
Although there were no storm clouds in the sky, an emotional one had been slowly gathering over me and Kody. It was about 1 in the afternoon when we turned from Victor Hugo’s home back towards downtown Paris and Kody told me that he was ready to head back to the hotel. I couldn’t believe it. He was done with Paris, had no interest in walking around anymore, and wanted to spend the rest of the day in our room relaxing. Up to this point in our trip, we had done absolutely everything together, so I felt like I had to go back to the hotel just because he wanted to. I also didn’t know if I would enjoy spending the afternoon wandering around Paris alone. We fought (publicly) for about 20 minutes before Kody begrudgingly agreed to stay in the city with me and I told him he should just go. I was going to spend the rest of the day in the city alone as an act of defiance!
The argument was pretty bitter and it was the first time we had to confront our different travel energies head on. Being out and about wears Kody down, but builds me up. We were both stressed thinking that we needed to be doing the same thing and neither of us wanted what the other did. My original plan was just to wait until I was sure we wouldn’t end up on the same train and take the next one back to the hotel.
As it turns out, exploring Paris on my own was exactly what I needed.
I spent the afternoon going to bakeries and bookstores and art museums. My first stop was to Shakespeare & Company, the famed English book store on the Seine. When I arrived, there was a poet sitting out front with his typewriter and a sign that read “Ask me for a poem.” He had built up a bit of a following and there was a line of people waiting to ask him for an original poem. Normally, I wouldn’t wait in a line like this, especially if I was traveling with someone else, but it was just me and I wasn’t even sure what to do with myself yet, so there I stood. When my turn came up, the poet decided to take a break. I offered him one of the baked goods I had made that morning because he looked a little exhausted. He brightened up at my offer and we chatted for a bit. I let him take his break while I shopped in the book store (yes, I bought a book of poetry). When I came out, he asked me if I would still like a poem and, if so, about what.
I had heard him ask other people in line this so I had been thinking of my answer while I was shopping. I wanted a poem about something that was meaningful and personal to me, but not so meaningful and personal that I couldn’t mention it to a complete stranger. I asked him to write me a poem about how the air smells when it’s cold outside because I have a lot of memories attached to that smell. The poem he created for me was so special. I walked around the corner before I read it and I’m glad I did because it made me tear up.
snowflakes on my senses
I don’t know when I’ll have the chance
To tell you this again so let me tell you
About how my memory has been crystallized
About how I remember the subtle scents
Of more than I know how to name
And they’re all stored in a series
Of beautiful glass viles I keep
On the shelves of my body,
Hidden somewhere in my infinite interior
Recalled to the surface by the cold
By all the snowflakes
Of my senses
Around the corner from Shakespeare & Company I bought a cardamom bun from Circus bakery. I had thought about this bun for months before coming to Paris and it exceeded my expectations. I finished it on the street outside the bakery and then walked right back in and ordered another one for later.
This afternoon was slowly turning into a perfect one. I was by myself, but didn’t feel alone. It seemed like it had probably been best for Kody and I to spend the day apart, although we hadn’t left things on the greatest terms. I hoped he was enjoying his time back at the hotel as I made my way to the Musee d’Orsay to say hello to my friends the Impressionists.
I got the audio guide and walked slowly through the museum greeting each Degas, Monet, Seurat, Manet, and Renoir calmly and reverently. Visiting a museum on your own means you can take your time and reflect on the artwork privately and without rushing.
On the top floor of the Musee d’Orsay there is a clock with a view of the Sacre Cœur at Montmartre. It’s so utterly Parisian.
This preview into my Paris Life was so enjoyable. After the museum, I found a sidewalk café to grab a bite at while I read my new book. I thought, “I wonder if my life in Paris would really be like this?” And then I realized: this was my life. I was sitting at a sidewalk café in Paris reading a book of poetry.
Another American woman who seemed to be traveling alone sat next to me. She was on the phone and although I wasn’t intentionally eavesdropping, we were too close for me not to hear everything she was saying. Then she said something about “Ada.” And I thought, “She can’t mean Ada, Oklahoma.” I always give Kody a hard time for engaging strangers in conversation, but I barely let her catch her breath after ending her call before I asked her if she had, indeed, been talking about Ada, Oklahoma. She had been!
Gabriella and I began chatting and discovered that we weren’t just from the same state — we lived in the exact same neighborhood in Norman, Oklahoma! She was traveling by herself for a week prior to an internship she had in Italy for the summer. Neither one of us had plans so we decided to wander around the city together. It was fun to meet someone new who was actually someone from home. We knew all the same places and the familiarity was really great. It was a perfect ending to what had been a tumultuous, but, ultimately, terrific day.
Kody and I still had our traveling tiff to work out. Luckily, we had a very long day ahead of us the next day when we left Paris to head to the United Kingdom.