First Solo Eurotrip: Paris (Part 1)
I got on the Eurolines bus to Paris with a huge feeling of excitement for my upcoming adventure. The bus was quite spacious and comfortable for an overnight journey. I took a window seat in front of a French woman in her 30s, who had an awkward argument with a British man over a joke she made about his face which was quite offensive. Another British male passenger boarded the bus, flirtatiously chanting “Bonsoir bonsoir, ladies!” A scared Asian woman then got off her seat, asked to sit next to me and we immediately got acquainted. Her name is Azizah from Kyrgyzstan, married with kids and worked as a correspondent for BBC. She was in London for work and traveling solo to Paris for a day before visiting a friend at Prague. We agreed to visit the Eiffel Tower together and help take photos of each other.
We arrived at Paris-Gallieni bus station at dawn and directly took the metro to my hostel so Azizah could store her luggage. Getting off at Anvers, I gasped at my first sight of the city. We were at a cobblestone square, surrounded by elegant Parisian buildings and golden street lights under a violet blue sky. I practiced my high school French to the only passerby at that hour. This made Azizah feel grateful to be in my presence, even though all I said was “ Pardon, je cherch rue de la dunkerque.” After putting our stuff at the hostel, we headed to the Eiffel Tower. I tried practicing my french again to a bunch of teenage girls but turned out they were British and could not help with directions. This was not a problem because the CityMapper app is the perfect navigator.
As we walked down a slope to the bus stop, I couldn’t help but stop to admire Parisian architecture. The sun rose over elegant residential buildings with cobalt blue roofing, beautiful window panes and artistic wall carvings. Shops and cafes started to open with the scent of freshly baked bread. The bus came shortly where we enjoyed more pleasant views of the city waking up. Getting off the bus, we walked along the Seine river and shared a special moment: spotting the Eiffel Tower for the first time. It was such a sunny day to enjoy the perfect iconic view. We crossed the bridge and entered a one-lane street filled with side-walk cafes with the tower getting larger in sight.
Pure joy from sighting the Eiffel Tower for the first time
Reaching the tower gave an emotional feeling of finally being in a long-awaited place. It is surrounded by a gorgeous park and not that crowded since it was early. I bought 5 keychains for 1 Euro from one of the many street vendors. Azizah and I decided to go up to the highest top since it is a rare moment. This was an excellent choice as we experienced such amazing views! I got to understand the brilliant urban planning of Paris. Classic architectural buildings in the vast city center are well conserved. On the outer edge were modern commercial skyscrapers. The city is well-organized and structured, forming a collection of blocks and triangles. Above all, everything is just beautiful from this viewpoint. After going back down, Azizah and I had the perfect photoshoot session at the long garden in front of the Eiffel Tower under a bright blue sky.
My wallpaper shot
Azizah treated me to breakfast at a nearby sidewalk cafe as a thank you for helping with her luggage. She had no other plans so she let me decide where to go. Like London, most landmarks of Paris are within walking distance. I chose to walk towards Place de la Concorde since we could pass by many other landmarks. We kept complimenting the city as there was either a beautiful building or garden at every corner. Arriving our destination, we enjoyed the holiday vibe as there was a nice Christmas market. We could also see the Arc de Triomphe from a distance. Azizah asked to return to the hostel since her flight to Prague was in the afternoon. I tried practicing my French again but again I approached another British person. Azizah suggested to just use English as most people seem to speak it. Coincidentally, a nice elderly French couple came to us offering directions in English. Getting back to the hostel, I parted ways with Azizah and became facebook friends.
After a short nap, I left the hostel searching for a late lunch. I stumbled upon a South Asian Muslim street where I found a comfy Indian restaurant. Trying to practice my french, I asked for a chicken tandoori with naan (saying, “Je veux un poulet tandoori avec naan”). The guy on the counter noticed my broken (more like shattered) french and replied quickly with a local accent, kind of felt like he was trolling with me. I said oui to somethings I understood and ended up buying a large lunch: chicken tandoori, cheese naan, and butter chicken with rice. Although this was not intended, I had the best cheese naan ever! It's filled with local brie, and really melts in your mouth. Having eaten that much at a late hour, all I had for dinner was a block of cheese (not really a smart decision for my stomach though). French cheeses turned out to be my favorite kind, the outer part has a nice chew texture and the core just bursts with flavor.
I spent the night strolling around Champs d’Elysee. The blue and gold street lights, luxurious shops, and the Arc de Triomphe glowing at the end made me feel the city’s romance. Just walking along the avenue, window shopping and people watching gives a warm feeling. When I have a wife someday, I will definitely bring her here.
A funny moment happened when I visited the Eiffel Tower again at night. It glowed magnificently and just stared at it for several minutes. A middle-eastern guy came up to me offering beer and wine. I said I don’t drink, and he then responded. “Maybe hash or weed?” I just continued walking.
The next morning, I went up the road to find such a lovely little sidewalk cafe overlooking Sacre Coeur called Panifica. Practicing my french again, I told the barista, “un croissant et un cafe, s’il vous plais.” She asked what kind of coffee and I said cafe noir. She then smiled and switched to English. Apparently that’s not how you say black coffee in France. I sat by the window gazing at the basilica and watching kids going in the nearby elementary school, thinking how fun it would be to be a Parisian kid. The croissant was really light and flaky and the coffee was just right. I loved the place so much that I came again the next day.
I headed to Notre Dame and met up with fellow solo traveler Tode from Thailand, whom I met through Couchsurfing. He was my age and taking a break from work. His travel stories were quite impressive, he’s been all around the world including South Africa which is in my bucket list. Shortly after getting acquainted, we went up the top of the cathedrals to see more impressive views of the city. The best feature for me are the gargoyles, which fascinated me as a child, probably because of the 90s cartoon and disney movie. The winged-beast sculptures seem to be watching over the city. We then continued on to Sainte-Chappelle, which was good for the mosaic windows. We watched an African musician in front of the modern and hip Centre Pompidou. Tode lost his gloves at that square so we stopped by a clothing shop owned by an Asian-French couple. We then continued to Sacre Coeur and avoided a series of scammers claiming to perform a magic trick. They will tie-up your wrists with string and ask for money to release. I told them that I don’t speak french but turns out they speak perfect English. Next time I would speak in Indonesian but my friends say they also know it. Tode almost lost his glove again at Sacre Coeur, luckily I could spot them from the top of the staircase.
Being on a hilltop, Sacre Coeur gives a majestic panoramic view. We could see the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral light up from a distance. Nearby is Montmartre, a historic quarter with narrow cobblestone roads, colorful little shops, and round golden street lights. A street performer was playing Ed Sheeran’s “Kiss Me”. I do hope to come here again to share this kind of moment with my future wife. We continued on to the glamorous Moulin Rouge famous for its neon lights. Our night ended at Galerie Lafayette where we enjoyed the wonderful christmas displays, but unfortunately not the rooftop view as we did not yet know about it.
The next day Tode and I got inspired and intrigued by the wonderful art collection and interiors of Musee D’Orsay. We then walked over to see the Louvre, which we chose not to visit because of the crowds. Nearby is Jardin de Tuileries, a vast city garden that still looks nice during winter. We then walked over to the Chinatown for lunch, which is similar to the one in London: local architecture blended with Far East culture. Walking was the best part of the day, just watching people do their daily activities and of course going around cobalt blue roofed buildings. Parisians are cool and diverse people, we often see people on skateboards going around the city or practicing tricks on a promenade.
A room in Musee D'Orsay
Tode and I parted ways in the evening as it was his last day in Paris. I made my way to the Grand Mosque for prayers and see the city’s muslim life. The mosque is absolutely beautiful: Morrocan architecture with a square garden in the center. Within the garden is a pool of water over blue mosaic tiles surrounding a round marble fountain. The main building has a pyramidal structure with elegant wood pillars met with emerald green carpeting. Nearby are many food joints, I went to a fried chicken joint the next day. The people there were really nice, the woman on the counter smiled in appreciation when I tried speaking French again and replied in English. Another customer made a casual chat with me. Muslim or not, I’m sure anyone would enjoy this part of Paris.
The garden in the center of the Grand Mosque
Later that night I made plans with Jo, who I got to know through my college friend, Arum. She invited her friend Shu Wei (who was visiting from Malaysia), her boyfriend and his friend to dinner at a noodle restaurant. She has spent time traveling around Asia, including Indonesia where she met Arum, and has high enthusiasm for each country’s culture. It was easy to form a connection with her as she is open-minded and laidback. We shared travel stories over a bowl of spicy beef noodles where I managed to jump from level 0.5 to 5.
Jo recommended lots of interesting places for my last day in Paris. First was the Promenade Plantee, a beautiful long narrow garden built upon an old bridge. One of the secret places of Paris, I got to go through different stages of the garden which includes a bamboo forest and ends with a large open park. My right view was classical Parisian buildings while on my left were modern apartments. I then went to a graffiti park that showcased lots of modern street art. I passed by the Roland Garros stadium while continuing to Bois de Boulogne, an absolutely massive park with such a lush forest. I saw some senior men playing bocce, which seemed like a wonderful way to enjoy retirement. Looking for the Louis Vuitton Foundation, I got lost in the middle of the woods and could just follow a path. I ended up at a bus stop and got on the first bus and got off the last stop. The people on the bus were quite friendly, sparking small conversations in french.
I went on to La Defense, the most modern part of Paris. The main landmark is the Grande Arche, which looks like a modern version of Arc de Triomphe. There was a nice christmas market in front of it where I could see Parisian children enjoying a puppet show and try a nice crepe with nutella. There are so many skyscrapers in La Defense and you can see the path leads straight to Champs d’Elysee. Wandering around the area made me imagine myself working in corporate France.
Jo couldn’t meet up again on my last night but she was so kind to arrange me and Shu Wei a dinner with her friend Ana from Brazil. The venue was at Le Marais, another gorgeous part of Paris. In the center is Hotel de Ville, a magnificent centuries old building which is now the main office of the local government. Le Marais is the perfect place for window shopping and sidewalk dining. An awkward moment happened in front of a Mango store, I caught a random guy staring at me and asked “How much you got?” Luckily it was crowded so I just walked away.
Hotel de Ville
I met Ana in front of a shop and we got a cup of coffee at one of the sidewalk cafes. She shared her experiences working as an expatriate in Paris which was much to my enjoyment. We then headed to the restaurant called Benedict which specializes in eggs benedict. Shu Wei was already there and we talked about our favourite tv series. This is one of my favorite parts of traveling, meeting new people and having quality conversations. We had a nice walk after dinner and I said goodbye to Ana and Shu Wei before heading to my next stop: Amsterdam.
I was more than content to spend 4 wonderful days in what is now one of my favorite cities. Before leaving, I just knew I would come again. The architecture of Paris is actually quite homogeneous yet so beautiful that I can’t get enough of it. Like London, the population is diverse and there is a strong presence of North African and Indochinese culture. For me, the people are genuine and actually friendly. They appreciate it when you make an effort to speak French and would switch the conversation to English. But most of all, just walking around the city is an experience: watching people enjoy the public spaces, gazing at the city lights, smell the fresh baked pastries at a bakery, and so much more.
I went again during reading week in February and saw a quote at Shakespeare and Company, a bookshop cafe near Notre Dame. It simply said, “Paris is always a good idea.” It certainly is.