Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Paris Found

Recently, I stayed in the Paris Violets room at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Osbispo, CA. Yes, the same Madonna Inn that houses the wonderful dancers from a different era and the Safari Room that I wrote about in my last post California Dreamin'.

On the face of it, the Paris Violets Room is not nearly as mad as the Safari Room. That is, until you notice that the paintings in both halves of the room are wired for light and once those lights are on, you are transported back to some '50s Parisian fantasy. The paintings are like something Lucy and Desi would have had in their bedroom on I Love Lucy. This side of kitsch now, that side of elegance then.

This is not going to be a post about those paintings although they will help to set the mood as we stroll back in time to my very first trip abroad somewhere shy of 30. And if you are anywhere close to the Madonna Inn in California, you should stop by if only to use the pink sugar shaker to sweeten your coffee in the Copper Cafe.

That first Paris trip -- a seven day junket with my friend Pam where we planned to hit all the high points and some of the low points. I grew up in a family that did not go jaunting off to Europe for vacations. Summers you would find us piled into a station wagon (a big rose one with wood on its sides) heading to my grandparents house or to the Connecticut Shore. Once in a while, we'd see a week on Cape Cod or up in Maine. But mostly the shore or the Litchfield Hills for us in the summer. A few times we drove to Florida for winter breaks -- I still have the ticket stubs from when the Magic Kingdom was only 8 rides and the rest of Walt Disney World was just a glimmer in Walt's eyes. For those trips, our parents would pile us in somewhere around 3:00 or 4:00 am, hoping all the while that we would sleep until 11:00 am before the cacophony of "are we there yet, he's touching me, i have to go to the bathroom, I'm hungry" began.

As a young adult, I had constructed vacations around friends who had work trips that were taking them to exotic places like Los Angeles, visits to my brother in New Mexico, weeks on Cape Cod, and places I could get to in my trusty ford pinto. Those were all easy trips -- involving a little planning, a hope that the weather would be good, and a desire (at least for the Cape Cod ones) for cute boys with whom we could dance and flirt.

This was to be my debut -- international traveler, owner of a passport, the first trip outside of US borders (ok, ok, we had gone to see Niagra Falls from the Canadian side when visiting my aunt, uncle, and cousin in Buffalo when I was little but I don't think that counts as international travel).

That first passport, I can remember filling out the application and bringing it to the post office at Bishop's Corner in West Hartford, CT. Although living in NYC, it just somehow seemed safer, saner to go back to my old home town to apply for this thing that would free me to see the world. I can remember when it arrived -- so blank, so longing to be filled with stamps, visas -- physical representation of what would soon be a host of wondeful memories.

Pam and I couldn't get enough of talking about this trip -- the anticipation was as good as the trip itself. We had booked ourselves into the Hotel Esmerelda in the Latin Quarter -- a room at the tippy top of the hotel with a casement window that we could fling open to the sun and sky and crawl up into to read a novel if we so desired. I was carrying the Hunchback of Notre Dame -- like a pairing of fine red wine with a perfectly grilled filet mignon. Our room looked down on to Saint Julien Pauvre Square -- the site of at least one lunch of baquette, cheese, and a bottle of wine purchased on the fly from the local markets.

This was going to be Paris on the cheap -- we were never going to sit down for our morning Cafe au Lait (standing at le zinc was so much cheaper), lunches would be baquette's and cheese, and dinners would be good but well-priced. Two ladies on a budget -- that was us. The trip got off to a great start as we shared our seat with a young frenchman wending his way back to Paris. We whiled away the time talking to him about our plans and getting his advice on where to eat and making a firm plan for dinner in the middle of our trip. That morning would see this jet-lagged duo seeing the Arche d'Triomphe the hard way (who knew there was a tunnel underneath as we dashed across to the safety of the isle luggage in hand?) and wandering around Notre Dame like ghosts as we waited for access to our room to "freshen up".

It was a glorious week -- the only sunny week that June -- and we did all the things young women on the loose in Paris are supposed to do. We went to the Louvre and sped our way through the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, and the Winged Victory (recreating Audry Hepburn's pose in Funny Face even as we raced to our next stop) and then to les Tuileries for wine, bread and cheese. We adhered to our plan of cafe au lait at le zinc -- in the small cafe adjacent to the hotel and to an English bookstore near and dear to my heart, Shakespeare and Company. We wandered the banks of the Seine, meeting Ronnie (who would later visit Pam in New York) and watching the boats float by. We shopped the prints at the bookanistas and the flea markets and marveled at the fowl and fauna caged and available for purchase.

We climbed to the top of Notre Dame and Sacre-Coeur but only went to the first platform at the Eiffel Tower (who wants to wait in line for the lift?). We toured l'egouts -- marveling at the engineering that went into this subterannean Parisian sewer and we traveled out to Versailles to walk in the footsteps of Marie Antoinette. I can see her at the center of her court in this most luxurious of palaces. Insulated from the world outside by the men and women of the court who wanted nothing more than a heir to the throne. I have a photo of a small boy -- probably around 10 -- gazing out longingly to the grounds as the docent droned on about life in the palace before the guillotine would cut that same court's life short. There is a symmetry to "let them eat cake" and "off with her head" -- no escaping that. We visited the van Goghs at the Musee D'orsay (still an all time favorite museum) and had dates with boys who hardly spoke English on our night with our plane friend, experiencing the romance of the artist's bridge under a Parisian moon.

Most of all -- we drank Paris in, leaving time between all the running around to see the sites for those impromptu picnics, strolls on the Seine, and along the Champs Elysee. For a dinner with Pam's American friend living in Paris with her baby daughter. To sit -- finally -- towards the end of our trip in that small cafe by the Seine to write in our journals, read our books, and just drink in the ever-changing scenery of a Parisian street.

Practical Matters
Just buy a good guidebook, book a flight and find a room at your price point and go! Be sure to leave time to take in the sites as opposed to "checking them off" on a "must see" list. Sink into the rhythm of the place by walking on the Seine, feasting on cheese, bread and wine, and sitting and nursing your cafe au lait as you while away an afternoon debating how to choose from the endless options that Paris offers.


  1. Hey Nancy - I've tried again to subscribe to TWAM and we'll see if it works this time.

    I remember Paris!

    Although until you reminded me of its better angels, the last thing that came to my mind about Paris was the waterless Parc Oceanique Cousteau at Les Halles (now out of business).

    I treasure the memory of going down into it, looking around and not seeing any there there. The experience serves as a touchstone to me as proof that no matter how incomprehensible and unbelievable, sometimes the world is just as screwed up as it seems to be.

  2. Chris -- how did you even hear about the waterless parc oceanique cousteau at les halles? and was that on the top of your list. top o' my list was l'egouts. that visit sparked a subsequent trip to the waste treatment plant on the hudson river (up around 145th street). sometimes i think i was a sewer rat in a previous life.

    i added the rss tool since your last visit so hopefully it will work this time. nancy