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Lessons Learned and Perfect Paris

By alison - March 17, 2004 (Updated: November 30, 2014)

I’m titling this blog “Things I’ve learned while living in a foreign country.” I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as there are just two weeks remaining to our time here. It now seems like such a short amount of time, when in reality, it’s longer than most vacations we’ve had in the past. But I guess that’s the point of this blog; coming to terms with the differences between vacationing somewhere, and living somewhere. In no particular order, here are some of the thoughts that I’ve been mulling over:

  • After being here for 3 months, we look at people wandering around Amsterdam, staring at maps while trying to find the red light district, and shake our heads and sigh …”tourists.” The biggest irony is not just that we did that when we first got here but that we were doing that last weekend while trying to find Sacre Coeur in Paris. I guess my whole point to these musings is there is a fine, yet very distinct line between tourists and visitors. Tourists hop off the bus (boat, plane, train) and start looking for the sights … museums, churches, towers, souvenir shops. Once they tick the five or six things they needed to see off of their list, they can say that they’ve “done” Amsterdam (Holland, Europe, whatever). I’m certainly not looking down on this way of thinking. Until this point in my life I had only been a tourist and I will continue to be a tourist in many places and I have no problem with that. When you first visit a new place, you should see the important sights. After all, they are famous for a reason. If you went to Paris for the first time without seeing the Eiffel Tower, people would think you were crazy. But once you’ve seen those things, you can look beyond them to the people who see them everyday. Robert has commented several times about how we are visiting things here that he has never seen. I think about Canada and how little I have seen of my own homeland. I had an interesting conversation with Marie-ann about perspective. She commented on some of the pictures I had taken of what I considered to be ironic sights around A’dam. One in particular was of a police station next door to a coffee shop. She remarked that she had walked by there countless times and never would have thought it odd. Looking at it through my eyes, she could see how funny it was. I had commented on a similar phenomenon that I had noticed. We (or I at least) rarely photograph the sights around our home town. As a photographer, when I think about shooting Peggy’s Cove or the Citadel, I think “that’s been done so many times before.” But yet I take a picture of the Eiffel tower … like no one’s ever done that before. I guess that’s why travel is so wonderful; you get to see things through new eyes. My time here has definitely made me want to see more of my own country.
  • This brings me to my next thought. Travel always seems to inspire more travel, at least for me. When I get the itch to travel and I finally get to go somewhere new, I’ll think “well, that should hold off the travel bug for a while.” But in reality it just makes me want to travel more. After three months here, I’m not thinking of all the things I’ve seen and done, I’m thinking of all of the things I didn’t have enough time to see and do, thereby planning my next trip here already. Seeing the highlights of Europe by bus did not make me feel that I had “done” Europe; it makes me think “wow, there are so many more places I would love to see and I would love to spend time in those places I’ve only seen briefly.” In fact, I can think of very few places I’ve visited in my life that I would not love to return to (Pisa and New Jersey come to mind and even those I think maybe I just need to see them with someone who knows where the nice parts are). I can also think of few places I would not like to travel to (I’ll skip the war zones for now as that sort of “adventure travel” is not my thing). Of course there are some places I would rather go before others, the “top ten list” you could say (but could I really narrow it down to ten?) But if anything, I’ve learned to take the travel opportunities when they arise. When there was a possibility of moving here back when we were buying our house, I didn’t really want to do it. I didn’t know much about this country (it was never in my top ten) and frankly, I was sacred. When it all fell through, I was relieved. Given that same chance today, I would jump at it, (not just the Netherlands specifically, although I do feel like I’ve found a second home here.) Not that there wouldn’t be difficulties and things that I would miss about home; family and friends being the biggest. But I guess the thought of living the rest of my life wondering “what if I had done that,” would be too difficult. If I had been too afraid to leave Saint John, I never would have met my soul mate, not to mention some wonderful friends who I can not imagine not being a part of my life. I strongly believe that everything in life happens for a reason. Specifically related to travel, I believe that every journey can make you a better person. Which leads me to another thought…
  • Travel and specifically living in a different country can make you more open minded, but only if you first open your mind (Ah ha, a catch 22). For example, you could easily come here and think to yourself … The Netherlands is different from home. They allow drugs and prostitution and dog shit on the streets … it’s crime ridden and dirty. Or you could come here and look at why these things are so and try to understand them. Well, really only pot is not illegal here and we’ve already seen in Canada a move to decriminalize it. Wouldn’t it make more sense to regulate and tax it if it’s going to happen anyway? Similar situation with prostitution, we’re not going to stop the world’s oldest profession, so lets at least make it a bit safer for everyone involved and for those who don’t want to do it, as with pot, just don’t do it. The dog shit, well it would be nice if people would learn to pick up after their pooches here, but having a dog friendly society is very nice. Imagine being able to walk to the grocery store with your dog and taking him inside while you pick up a few things, instead of tying him up outside or not taking him at all. Or owning a shop where your dog or cat is free to greet the patrons (this happens at home from time to time, but not very often and certainly there are not restaurant cats). I guess my point is that being open to the way things are done in different places, makes you more open to change and new things in your own life. It makes you understand that different is not always wrong, or right for that matter … just different. There can be more than one correct way to solve a problem.
  • My final thought is that despite our differences, people are fundamentally the same everywhere (cliche, I know, but still very true). Everywhere you go, there are nice people and mean people; open minded people and closed minded people; people who love peace and people who would rather fight about everything; rich people and poor people. With our world the way it is lately, with the fighting and killing on the news at all times, it’s easy to forget this. Generally, people just want peace, happiness and safety. It’s the minority of people that want the wars and killings to continue, not the majority. If more people could open themselves up to see these similarities instead of always looking at our differences I think the world would be a more peaceful place (that, and if women ruled the world…)

I didn’t mean for this to end up being so preachy, and I guess it was more to sort it all out for myself than to share, but I’d be interested to hear anybody’s thoughts on anything I’ve said here (as long as you agree with me … just kidding). These are also not specifically things that I’ve only discovered while being here. I’ve believed most of it for a long time, but they certainly have become more clear during our stay.
10:25:48 AM
Ok, now for what everyone was really hoping to read about, rather than my diatribe about “what I learned on my summer (winter) vacation…” Paris. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why Paris has this reputation of snobbishness and rude people. On my two brief visits there I have found nothing but wonderfully warm, helpful people. Paris also has a reputation for being dirty that I would also refute. Sure, I wouldn’t eat off the sidewalks but we’re talking about a city with millions of people, so there’s bound to be a bit of dirt. There are beautiful areas and seedy areas, just like any other city. Without trying to be too melodramatic, I would compare Paris to a handsome older woman; someone you see and think “she will be regal and beautiful until the day she dies.” Sure there may be winkles and grey hair but they are hard earned and tell the story of a long and tumultuous life. On many of the streets in Paris (the side streets away from the main tourist areas anyway) I felt that if I blocked out the cars and power lines, in my mind, I could be existing in any time period. The wrought iron, pealing paint and flower draped balconies seem to be the same as they were a hundred years ago or more.

As we had been to Paris on our bus tour, and “done” the major sites (see bitter tirade above) we wanted to do some things that were a bit different. We did do some typical touristy things as well, but I’m getting ahead of myself. We go first to a seedy hotel on the outskirts of La Defense…

The disadvantage of booking hotels on-line (or any other way but in person I suppose) is that you can pretty much take a picture of any building in the right light, slap it on the net and make it look not too bad. Note to self … if a hotel is significantly cheaper than other hotels in the area, there is probably a reason… Ok, so it wasn’t that bad, but it was no Park Plaza that’s for sure. We stayed at the Comfort Inn near La Defense, a new, skyscraper filled side of Paris. Aside from the carpet containing a complete microcosm of lower life forms and the door not having a lock on the inside of any kind it was relatively clean, and cheap. It could be worse. I’ll leave it at that.

We arrived late Friday night so we ventured in to Paris early Saturday morning. We had to take a bus to La Defense which in itself was rather uneventful except that it made us realize how very “white” we are. At La Defense we took a quick look at the Grand Arch. This was built as the modern sister to the Arch de Triumph on the Champs. If you go to the top of one of the arches, you can clearly see the other, directly in front of you. After a quick photo, we hopped on the metro (yes I said I wasn’t going to do this after the recent events in Madrid, but you really can’t get anywhere in Paris without taking the metro and frankly, you can’t live your life in fear of what could happen or you’d never leave your house.)

We got off the metro at the top of the Champs, surrounded by Japanese tourists all trying to take pictures of each other in front of the Arch de Triumph (what is it about Asian tourists that makes them feel compelled to stand in front of every monument ever created and have someone take a picture?) Then we did what every girl must do at some point in her life … walked down the Champs d’Elysee. Honestly, there are much better places to shop in Paris, places where you aren’t surrounded by other tourists and eyed suspiciously by hundreds of security guards (the street has more security that fort Knox I’m sure). But we walked it (the shopping district of the street is really much smaller than you would imagine) and then had lunch at a cafe. Sure a cafe on the Champs is probably twice as expensive as a cafe one street away, but there are some things in life you just have to do).

There was one store in Paris that I had to go to…Boys, skip this paragraph… It’s called Sephora, and girls, I’m getting the catalogue shipped home as we speak. Sephora is the largest make-up and perfume store in Paris and has outlets all over Europe and the States. It is huge… and the best part is you can test everything. Scratch that, that’s the second best thing … the very best thing is all of the free stuff they give you. If you go to a make-up counter at home, your lucky if they give you one of those little scratch and sniff perfume cards. At Sephora, I walked out with more free stuff than purchases. There is just about any line of make-up here you can think of, from the very expensive (Chanel, Gaultier, Dior), to the very inexpensive (Maybeline, and the cheapest which is Sephora’s own label). Just about every brand has it’s own consultant who will do your entire make-up (get this) for free! Oh sure, they hope you will buy the stuff if you like it, but you don’t have to. And they are so nice. I had my make up done by the Make Up Forever consultant (French company with nice, professional stuff). She was very sweet and when I was done gave me free trial sizes of lip stick, concealer and cleanser. Then I went to find some nail product. The woman who worked in that department was an absolutely gorgeous African-Parisian woman named Gala. They were offering French manicures for 18 euro (can you imagine what you’d pay for that at home?) I asked if I could have one and she was VERY apologetic that she was just about to go for her lunch. I said it was no problem and that I could come back later. Well, she was so sorry she started filling my basket with more samples (hand cream, Chanel perfumes …) I made an appointment for later and left with my purchases (and samples).

We then went to the Pompidou Centre. This is the museum of modern art. This was my idea and I take full responsibility for the disaster that ensued. To be honest, the main reason I wanted to go there was because the building itself is extremely cool and has a great view of Paris from the top. Also, I feel like I really should appreciate modern art more and was hoping to gain more understanding of it there. Well, the lines were rather insane. I can’t imagine what it’s like in the summer. The building was cool and the view was good … then we went in to the gallery. Well, maybe if I had of planned it out better and we went through it chronologically from the oldest to newest works, we would have got more out of it. As it was I didn’t get it and I think Andrew was bored out of his mind when he wasn’t laughing out loud. Sure there were some things I liked, although I was never really sure why, but most of it we lumped into the “my kid can draw better than your artist” category. When we did get to the older stuff, that I actually knew stuff about (Picasso, kandinsky, Matisse, Dali) we were tired and our brains hurt from trying to figure out the newer stuff. We laughed at our uncultured-ness on the way out (I, with the resolve to learn more about modern art before I do this again)

Then it was time to head back to Sephora for my manicure but not before buying and eating a crepe from a street vender (a definite must). Gala was a delightful manicurist. Once she realized we understood French, there was no stopping her. She was hilarious and did a great job on my nails, although it did take a lot longer than advertised and I think there was some reluctance to go back to work on her part, which was fine by us. She had a particular affinity for Andrew because he was so patient during the whole procedure, unlike some of the other husbands she had encountered. He got his share of sample products when we were finished (and I got even more…see the picture). By this time we were starved so we had some supper and caught the metro back to La Defense. From there it was back to the hotel and early to bed to prepare for a long Sunday.

Andrew decided Sunday morning that since we had to drive in Paris that day, he wanted to drive around the Arch de Triumph. For anyone unfamiliar with this, it is a round-about with the Arch in the centre and 11 (could be wrong on that) streets that enter into it. Most notably, it is cobble stone with no lane markings whatsoever. We drove around it completely (there is video evidence) and then down the Champs. There was also an incident with a one-way street and a very frightened taxi driver that we won’t get into. We managed to find our destination, Sacre Coeur, and get a great parking spot (thanks to Andrew’s Zen-like parallel parking skills). The church sits atop a hill in the Montmartre district (famous as an artist hang-out throughout the ages). It is huge and the view of the city is stunning … and the hordes of people swarming it are unbelievable. But even the hordes of tourists here don’t detract from the beauty of the church. We happened to be there as a mass was starting and we sat and watched the nuns singing in awe. The acoustics inside the church are unbelievable. All I can say is it is a very powerful experience, religious or not, that must be seen to be understood. You will see no pictures of the inside of the church on my website as they were not permitted. This didn’t stop most people from flashing away but I felt this was not only disrespectful for the people worshiping there, but that there was no way I could accurately capture the beauty of this building on film.

After our experience at the church we had lunch at a nice little cafe around the corner and then went in search of our final destination. Le Buttes de Chamont Parc. This was an interesting park built on the site of an old quarry. Most of the rock formations you will see in the pictures are man made but it is a beautiful park nonetheless. You will have to see the photos to get a sense of what it is like. We had an enjoyable walk all the way around and through the park and then we settled in for the long drive home.

We decided on one last detour on the way. We went back to the memorial at Vimy, which we had visited briefly on the bus tour. This time we visited the small museum as well. Most interesting though, was the recreation of the trenches of the front line. It was amazing to see the actual craters left by the bombing and how close the Canadian front line was to the German front line. I’ve tried to demonstrate this in the pictures but I don’t think it really does justice to the site. The Vimy memorial in general is a place where you feel very proud and lucky to be Canadian.

Our journey was topped off by a third and final trip to the Sate Hut in Breda, a town we have never actually visited except as a supper spot on the way from other destinations. The food was great and we just kept going back. Mmmm…sate.
Mmmmm…Paris.

8:36:56 PM
Quick update … if you have the chance go see Cirque de Soleil it is fabulous. These people are the best of the best in the world. The costumes, choreography and music, in addition to the actual acts, is amazing. All I can say is see it and then see it again.

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Alison

Alison

Big Cheese at CheeseWeb
Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel photographer and the founder of Cheeseweb.eu. She is the author of The Foodie Guide to Brussels: Local Tips for Restaurants, Shops, Hotels, and Activities. Alison landed in Belgium in 2005 and, over the years, has become passionate about slow and sustainable travel, in Europe and beyond. She loves to discover hidden gems - be they museums, shops, restaurants, castles, gardens or landscapes, and share them through her words and photos. She has visited 45 countries and is currently slow travelling through North America in an RV, with her husband, Andrew, and two well-travelled cats. You can also follow her work on Google+
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