We arrived in Paris on Saturday, August 2, crossed town with our luggage and settled into our first hotel, an affordable and tiny but elegant 2-star in an out-of-the-way neighborhood at the foot of Montmartre. That evening we enjoyed a simple picnic and a slow stroll through the streets of the hilltop neighborhood of Montmartre.
Our flight arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport around 3:00 p.m. local time. It was quick and easy getting our bags and passing through border patrol. Once past, we had bigger problems trying to discern where we were supposed to be; not only was there a slight language barrier due to my mediocre French, but everything looked unfamiliar. You’d never be able to predict what would result in culture shock, and it wasn’t the last time unfamiliar-looking signs would have us way out of our comfort zone.
Our only real trouble began when we were finally at the train station ready to board the RER into Paris. Europe has this new chip-and-pin system for their credit cards and without that implant in your cards, most machines won’t read them. We had no currency yet and were suspicious of airport exchange rates, though within a few more hours we would throw that picky attitude to the wind for the duration of our trip. Eventually we boarded our train, still without currency but ready to take on the town. We sat down on the train and the next moment a plainly-dressed man stepped onto our coach carrying an accordion. As we rolled out of the station he began to play La Vie en Rose. And there we were, in Paris. It couldn’t have felt more real – one of those moments you think you might have stepped into a movie.
More reality awaited us at Gare du Nord, where we discovered several things quickly: There was to be a lot of lugging heavy bags up enormous flights of stairs through the next three weeks of public transport. Some of our walks were going to be very long. We were going to get very good at paper maps and acting on our instincts without certainty. Wheeled suitcases and cobbled roads aren’t exactly an ideal match. Parts of Paris smell like pee, and if you’re wondering why just glance over to that side alley to see a very average sight: someone facing the wall.
It took several hours to get from the airport to our hotel room, and just as we relaxed into our room a downpour came out of nowhere. By the time we’d changed clothes and prepared to set out for night the sky was clearing again. This was a pattern through our whole trip with almost no exception: The weather was perfect and the only rain happened just when we minded it least. We took it as a lovely gift from God. Not only was the weather perfect for our journey but neither of us ever got the slightest bit sick. These are not details you can plan into your itinerary!
After setting out from our hotel we encountered our first real traveling trouble, which introduced a theme that would echo through our whole adventure: I’d told Mike (he understandably assumed I was being over-fussy) that I felt inadequately prepared for the financial nuts and bolts of this trip. There we were at 7:00 p.m., standing in Rue des Martyrs having eaten nothing since red-eye airplane food, completely starving, ready to sample France’s finest fromageries, boulangeries, and patisseries – we could smell them!! – when we realized we were nothing without currency and the only debit card we’d brought had (horror of horrors!) expired three days earlier. (I told him I was under-prepared…) That left us dependent for the entire trip on cash advances from our back-up credit cards, used at ATMs along the way. Our primary card, without international fees, wouldn’t supply us with a PIN and was therefore useless to us except as a simple credit card.
While it made for quite the drama in the moment (because not only did we have no cash and no shops accepting credit card, but the PINs for our back up credit cards were in a notebook back in our hotel room, which we’d just left (we thought) for the evening), it wasn’t the end of the world. This was the only frustrating element of our trip, and we managed to pull through with no real setbacks and only about $100 of extra cost.
It was a good day; it didn’t measure up to our expectations, but then there we were, ACCIDENTALLY sitting on the wall of Renoir’s home, eating dinner (after 9 hours’ fast) of baguette, cheese, and grapes, all bought from different shops on Rue des Martyrs. And late tonight in bed, a bottle of Bordeaus and a shared pain au chocolat. Our flight arrived two hours late. We couldn’t use our Venture Visa in France, our debit card expired, and we had to walk back to our hotel, famished, because we hadn’t brought our Chase pin to withdraw cash from an ATM.
We got lost in the back slope of Montmartre, and cut short our expedition to find the famous Montmartre Cemetery in order to arrive early enough to attend 9 p.m. Compline at Sacre Coeur only to discover it was at 9:30 and on top of that, search the famous horizon in vain for the Eiffel Tower. We sat in the church till 9:40 and gave up hope of the alleged Compline, and were accosted by pushy Kenyan bracelet makers at the foot of the hill. So, not the day we anticipated, but all-in-all perfect anyway: Paris. (Did I mention our tiny, quaint 5th floor room up a spiral staircase overlooking the street? We chose a LOVELY hotel!)
While scaling the staircase streets of Montmartre and wandering its lovely neighborhoods was well worth the effort, Sacre Coeur was one of our more disappointing experiences, one of the few destinations we would skip if we had the chance to retrace our steps. It was too commercial, too devoid of historic significance (built after WWII), too full of tourists; of all the churches we stepped into, Sacre Coeur felt least sacred. But the beauty of dusk coming to Paris atop the hill was memorable and our spirits were high (and our feet were sore) as we enjoyed the walk home after dark on our first night of adventure. We were tired after accomplishing only a part of what we imagined our first day could hold. Paris put us in our place that first day, but we gave it a good fight anyway the next three days.