Song of the trip: “That’s What I Like” by Bruno Mars

I flew from London to Paris last weekend (Jan. 24-26), and I’m still in shock. My good friend Nikki and I went alone, and it was probably in my top three weekends of my entire life, if not the best; I went through so much personal growth in such a short amount of time, and that alone is priceless. For the first time in my life I had complete control over my travel itinerary in a brand new city; not to say I didn’t enjoy my family’s previously planned-out trips, but the element of complete independence made the experience so much more incredible. The one thing Nikki and I didn’t plan was our plane tickets/hotel accommodation. Her family is from Europe, so her mother was able to find us an affordable airfare/hotel package, and booked it for us. As it turns out, that was the one part of the trip that didn’t work out quite like we thought, which will be explained in due time.

Friday morning, Nikki and I woke up at 7:00am after barely getting four hours of sleep. We were up late the night before picking out outfits, packing, and talking about how excited we were in general to fly from London to Paris and back on our own. We got ready and finished packing all of our toiletries and snacks, and set out to catch our Tube at 8:20, which was about 3-4 blocks away. Rolling a suitcase and a carry-on through the streets of London is not a small feat, and by the time we got to the underground station my back already hurt. I put it out of my mind as much as I could and stayed positive. We hopped on the Piccadilly Line and rode it for about an hour to Heathrow (LHR) Airport, got off, went upstairs, obtained our boarding passes, checked our luggage, went through security, and found a place to eat breakfast. I had avocado toast, the best hash-brown ever, and Earl Grey tea. At 11:00, we boarded the plane and took off at 11:50, landing at 2:00 Paris time (one hour ahead of London). I have to tip my beret to AirFrance; the service was incredible, as was the coffee and lemon cakes they passed out, and the seats in Economy were like the Business class ones in the States. I’ve never felt happier on a plane, I was so excited!

Once we found our luggage, we took out euros from an ATM and made our way to the train after buying them from a really nice teller. He was very amused when we said “merci” and walked away. That was just the beginning of our numerous encounters with the French. We rode the train for 45 minutes and got off when Nikki’s phone mapper told us to switch to the underground. Sounds easy, right? Wrong. Because everything was in French. The signs in the giant station were extremely unclear, no one that far out of the city that we could find spoke English, and when we finally found the machines to buy another ticket for the metro, it insisted on us entering a PIN number for our cards that didn’t have pins. After an hour and a half, Nikki’s mom finally got back to us and told Nikki to use a certain card which had a pin that we weren’t aware of. After we found the right metro, going in the right direction, we rode it for a few stops and finally arrived at the right station. What should have been an hour trip took two and a half hours, and we were mentally and physically exhausted from navigating and carrying luggage up and down so many flights of stairs. Emerging from the underground, we see the famous landmark, known for cabaret: Moulin Rouge. I knew our hotel was close, so we entered the location into my phone and followed it down the street around the corner. We were quite confused, because the street was only full of shops, bars, and grocery stores. It was only when we passed a big pair of gates and I saw the first four letters of “hotel” up the cobblestone that we found out where it was. New problem: it was behind the gates, which needed a code to unlock. Luckily (the first instance of amazing luck on this trip), a man opened it from the inside and went on his merry way, enabling us to slip in and roll our suitcases into the hotel. We checked in, got our room (up another flight of stairs because there was no lift), and collapsed on the sofa. By this time, it was 5:30 and we could have gone to bed then and slept through the night, we were so tired. OUT OF THE QUESTION! We’re in Paris! We had to push through the fatigue and start our fun plans. The room was fantastic, with two twin beds, a TV which we never used, a closet, big window, two chairs and a coffee table, desk, living room, and an enormous bathroom. We were very excited about this because we’d been sharing a small sink and a 2×2 shower with two other girls for the last three weeks. Now we had our own sinks, a bathtub big enough to fit me, and a shower big enough to fit all nine people in our London flat. We unpacked a few things, grabbed our purses, and went out at 6:00 to a restaurant I found on google maps around the corner on the street with Moulin Rouge, called Bouillon Pigalle. As we’re walking down the street, we start to see a million bars, clubs and sex shops; naturally, we were very suspicious. Once seated at the restaurant, I googled “Paris red light district.” Obviously, that’s where we were. We were staying in the red light district. It starts on Pigalle Square. Bouillon Pigalle. Yep. Earlier in the day, Nikki’s mom had warned us not to go to the red light district because of, well, obvious reasons, and of course we wouldn’t plan on doing that anyway. We didn’t have a choice now! After we came to terms with the situation, we started laughing. It ended up being just fine as long as we were together and, well, not stupid. Dinner was amazing, half because we were starving and half because it was gourmet French food. I had salmon with rice and some kind of amazing green sauce, with a side of veggies in broth. The only weird part was having to pull off the skin of the fish, I’m definitely not used to that. For dessert we shared a huge choux pastry cream puff, baked to perfection.

After we paid, we decided not to walk around the red light district looking for public transportation in French at night, so we called a cab to take us to the Louvre museum! It was only 15 minutes away, and by taking a cab we were able to actually pay attention to the city while traveling instead of stressing over navigation. We ended up cabbing the whole trip for that same reason; we were only there for two days, anyway. We pulled up to the Louvre at 7:30, and it was absolutely stunning at night. The lights all over the largest museum in the world made for adorable pictures, especially since there was barely anyone there at that time of night. I don’t know why they wouldn’t be, because on Fridays the museum is free from 6:00-9:45pm. Lucky. We spent the last two hours running (figuratively) all over the museum, seeing so many famous artworks in such a short amount of time, wishing we had more to spend gazing at each piece. We saw The Charging Chasseur, Portrait of Louis XIV, Diana of Versailles, Oath of the Horacio, The Coronation of Napoleon, The Wedding at Cana, Liberty Leading the People, Winged Victory of Samothrace, Venus de Milo, and the Mona Lisa. When Nikki and I walked into the room holding the tiny Mona Lisa, we were shocked not by the painting, but by the irony of the room. There was a massive crowd around the painting, with at least a 30 minute line to get a picture in front of it. Across the vast room was The Wedding at Cana, which was a floor-to-ceiling masterpiece with absolutely no one standing in front of it. Our personal opinion is that that painting was way more impressive and deserved more credit, so we took our tourist pictures with the Mona Lisa in the far background off to the side of the line, and went to admire the other painting. The museum was bigger than I ever could have imagined, and room after room was so different and stunned me for different reasons. My favorites were the Napoleon Hall, lavishly elaborate in every way, and the sections filled with Ancient Greek statues. I love mythology, and made a game out of guessing who each Greek god or goddess was before reading the sign. I was always right. My favorite piece in the whole museum (that I saw) was a giant statue of Athena. When I attended VanDamme Academy, we used to practice imitating statues or paintings in effort to understand how the person was feeling, and I always loved it, so I stood in front of Athena posing as her while Nikki took a photo. It was a very special, sentimental moment for me. I felt powerful.

After running through the Museum and gift shop, at 9:45, I ended up leaving with a small bracelet with a charm of the Eiffel Tower and a replica key necklace of the one from the Palace of Versailles displayed in the museum. We called a cab and headed back to our hotel to get ready for the show we planned to see that night. Oh yes, Moulin Rouge. At 11:00pm. And there was a dress code.

We only had 45 minutes to shower and get all dressed up. For a while we debated whether or not to wear our fun outfits or not, since we were in the red light district, but we ultimately decided that we weren’t going to let it scare us into not having a good time. So we wore the outfits, covered up with coats and scarves, and ran across the street to the show at 10:55. They let us in and ushered us to a long line up a grand staircase, where no one had been let in yet. When we bought the tickets we didn’t get to chose our seats, so we were concerned being at the end of the line. A few stragglers showed up after us, but not more than 20 people in a room already full of a few hundred. Eventually the line started inching along, and we went down another staircase and rounded a corner. There was a short, narrow hallway with a sign pointing down more stairs that read “Moulin Rouge,” which I assume must have been from decades ago where cabaret and drinking was illegal or frowned upon. Secret entrance to the underground event, perhaps? Once we went down those stairs and waited in the line, we realized there were ushers personally deciding and seating people at tables inside the venue. Naturally, I took my coat off for the man seating us, and we ended up getting the best seats in the entire house! We were half a level up from the ground floor, where people were right at the stage but had to crane their necks to look up at the performance, centered, at the very edge of the level. It was a table for six, and four people got seated next to us, but we were the ones in front! The show was absolutely jaw dropping. I mean, it was the most famous cabaret show in Paris. I should hope there would be a woman in a tank full of giant snakes. Who wouldn’t? The show was an hour and a half with no intermission, and when we left we were astounded at the beautiful insanity of the show.

At this point it was 1:30 in the morning, and we hadn’t eaten since 6:00pm. Having walked 8 miles that day, we decided the crepe stand in the middle of the road was the way to go. We each bought a crepe, made right in front of us (mine was Nutella), and a water bottle; we walked back to the hotel with warm crepes in our hands, flopped down on the sofas, and devoured the authentic wonderfulness, taking delirious selfies the entire time. After, we finished unpacking, raving about the crazy and amazing day we just had, we went to bed at 3:00am. And that was just day one.

We slept in the next day until 10:00, then got up and went to eat the continental breakfast the hotel had downstairs. It was a great assortment of fruit, yogurt, cereal, toast and jams, juice, milk, tea, muffins, croissants, and crepes. I did not eat a crepe, however, because I didn’t want to spoil the amazingness of the one the night before. That morning, technically…The breakfast was overpriced, so we gathered up all the extra fruit, yogurt, tea and biscuits we didn’t eat and brought it back up to the room for later when we would need it, and so we didn’t starve! Back in the room, I changed into my day outfit – yes, I packed three outfits a day, we went to Paris – And we called a cab to take us to the Eiffel Tower. The city was so beautiful in the morning, and the day was brightly overcast with rays of sun streaming through, which made for a gorgeous day, but not so bright that I needed my sunglasses; that was best even though I miss the sun, because I forgot to pack them. It was surreal to see the tower. It’s one of those landmarks that you see in movies and in pictures, but you never imagine yourself standing at the foot of it, in what felt like the center of Paris. We took an endless amount of photos of each other as well as selfies, but we needed a good one of the two of us. We saw a group of people who were clearly tourists, so we asked one of them to take our photo. To our shock, the only man in the group accepted my phone and took off running. Nikki and I frantically ran after him, but soon he stopped, crouched down, and gestured for us to stand in a certain spot so he could get the perfect angle to take our picture in front of the tower. He was clearly a photographer, and the pictures are stunning. As scary as the incident initially was, it reminded me not to assume that people always have malicious intent when things like that happen. It was probably just a culture difference for him to think that was okay. Some people do have foul intentions, however, like pickpockets. Paris is notorious for them, and over the course of the 30 minutes we were at the Eiffel Tower, six different people came up to us holding a map asking if we spoke English, a very common way to distract tourists in order to take their belongings. Nikki and I got very good at not reacting to hearing the English, continue walking and speaking random gibberish to each other under our breath whenever someone came close that could be a threat.

It was about 1:15 at this point, and days ago I made reservations for us to eat and have tea at my favorite tea/dessert place ever, Ladurée, at 3:00. Below the Eiffel Tower was the river Seine, and a sign said that a 1 hour river cruise ran every hour, so we went down to check and see if we had the time to do one before cabbing to the reservation. To our surprise and luck, there was one leaving in 5 minutes, so we got to go on the cruise! We boarded the boat and went to the top, ready for a relaxing tour of the area. I had a glass of wine while the tour guide pointed out famous bridges and buildings, like Notre Dame. We wanted to make a trip over to go inside, but it’s currently closed for repairs from the tragic fire last year. After the breathtaking boat ride, we hailed a cab to take us to the original Ladurée, built in 1862, on the famous shopping strip Champs-Elysees. Our friendly cab driver let us out right in front, and we went straight in to the desk, moving through the crowd buying macaroons downstairs and the line of people waiting to be seated, and spoke to the hostess about our reservation. That’s when she told us we didn’t have a reservation. Apparently, the app I used wasn’t legit for bookings and they only accept phone reservations. She told us we could sit at the bar or wait in line, but that it could be anywhere from 20-40 minutes for a table. Since this was the event on the calendar I was most excited for, we decided to wait. Within 5 minutes our luck kicked in, and a table for two opened up, so we got to go upstairs before the people in front of us! The building was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It was so ornately decorated with Ladurée boxes and artwork, mixed with the original lavish charm of the building, pastel wall paper and crown molding still intact. Our room was one of the more private ones, so in the hustle and bustle of the afternoon, we still had the lovely quiet experience of afternoon tea for two. I ordered the special Ladurée house blend tea, and the “Tea for Two” platter came with four finger sandwiches, two biscuits with jam, two macaroons and one specialty macaroon for us both. We spent an hour and a half at the table, taking our time to eat slowly and drink our entire pots of tea, enjoying every minute of the experience. The macaroons were better than I ever imagined they could be, and I have high standards! Macaroons are my absolute favorite dessert, and Ladurée is the top place to get them. I almost cried from happiness. After tea, we went back downstairs and I bought a box of six macaroons to take back to the hotel: Vanilla, Chocolate Orange, Berry, Pistachio, Rose and Marie-Antoinette. They were all mouth-watering and made me wonder how they were able to make each of them have such distinct, strong flavors, yet be so delicate at the same time. My box to go even had instructions on how to store them and eat them if they weren’t to be eaten that day. I left the store so happy I felt I would burst, and the keychain Lana got me four years ago from there suddenly meant so much more. I look at it every day and smile, thinking of her and its vacation back to Paris.

We walked out onto one of the most famous shopping strips in the world, so we went shopping! It was mostly going into all of the best designer stores, fawning over the collections and building outfits in my head, but we also went into souvenir shops and got little trinkets. I bought a small neutral scarf that had depictions of all the famous landmarks in Paris, which was much more productive that’s drooling over a $15,000 Dior dress. Dior is my new favorite designer right now. After Tiffany, of course. When we got to the end of the strip we got to see and take pictures in front of the Arc de Triomphe, then looped around down the other side. When we couldn’t walk anymore, we sat down at a Starbucks to decide where to get dinner. We were craving something healthy after the sugar-heavy lunch and wanted salads, but we couldn’t find a place anywhere near that looked good for salads. So with one last glimmer of hope for leafy greens, we googled “salads” and to our surprise, a restaurant called Eat Salad popped up halfway back to our hotel. It had great reviews, so we cabbed over and went in. Shockingly, it was a very trendy place with a bunch of leaf bases, toppings and dressings to build your own unique salad. I am not exaggerating when I say that was the best salad I’ve ever had in my life. I had a lettuce with noodles in the bottom, shaved carrots, chicken, avocado, black olives, and pesto sauce. It was fantastic.

After dinner we went back to the hotel and relaxed (I took a hot bath in the giant bathtub, which was so nice on my sore feet and muscles), talked for a while about all the crazy things we just did in such a short amount of time, ate a bag of ‘cocktail inspired jellybeans’ and fell asleep.

The next morning we woke up at 8:00, finished packing, and began our journey back to the airport. Everything went much better this time, minus the fact that we got on the right train going the wrong direction at first, and that AirFrance forced us to check our luggage for a whopping €45 each because all of our bags combined weighed more than 12 kilos. I mean really, mine alone was 9 and it was tiny. The flight was late so we got home around an hour later than expected, but it was still comfortable air travel nonetheless, and I got my student stamp! Which was technically the whole reason we had to go. We walked into our London flat at 3:30, yelling “Bonjour!” to our flat mates and hugging them. I’m sad to not start all my encounters with “bonjour” and end with “merci” anymore. I got so good at it! People thought I was a local and began speaking French to me until I stopped them. It’s probably because of my wardrobe. I packed strategically. Just like that the trip was over, and Nikki and I walked around in awe of our amazing trip. I’ve been going through a bit of reverse culture shock. Paris was a much more aggressive city than London, so re-adjusting back here was strange. But when Nikki and I were on the Tube ride back to the flat, we just sat side by side holding hands for a while looking at our reflection in the window. We looked like two locals riding the underground like it was second-nature with our earbuds in; for the first time, London felt like home.

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