An American in Paris (and London, and Frankfurt)
My partner, our friend Delaney, and I took on London, Paris, and Frankfurt over eight days. This is how it went down. 'Avertissement': This blog is a long one, albeit hopefully worth the read.
The privilege of travel is one that I value more than most other things. It's fun, it's informative, and it shows you first hand the diversity in your own backyard (such as traveling domestically within the States) and abroad (like traveling internationally, as we did here). It's a gentle reminder that as much as we are all very different people, we are in fact much more alike than we are dissimilar even when there is a language barrier, as I will get to when we arrive in Paris later.
This trip was my first time out of the United States. Despite living in a state that borders a foreign nation, I've never crossed that line, nor have I ever had the opportunity to visit our neighbors to the north in Canada.
So, for the first time outside the States, go big or go home, right?
My partner Alfre and I, along with our friend Delaney, packed up and took to the skies for an eight hour flight to London. From there, we had tickets to take the Eurostar train to Paris, from which we would fly to Frankfurt, before finally enjoying (enduring?) an 11-hour flight back to Houston.
DAY ONE: Arrival in London
Eight hours after departing Houston, we landed in London at about 7AM local time. There was a lot of ground to cover, and I was not about to let a little drowsiness get me down! First thing's first: Coffee.
If you know anything about me, you know that I rarely buy souvenirs on vacation. My souvenir is the local flavor. Local food, drink, and caffeine. After arriving at King's Cross from the airport, we hit up a little hotel cafe across from the station called The Megaro. Coffee and biscuit sandwiches to fill us up - though I don't remember what The Megaro calls them, as "biscuits" in the UK are what we call "cookies" in the US. These were biscuit sandwiches in that they were on what we call "biscuits" in the States.
Ten minutes in the UK and I'm already a horrible tourist.
Caffeinated, we traveled onward to The British Library. I must say that at this point, we hadn't even traveled outside a quarter mile radius from the train station.
The library, while an exhilarating experience overall, was especially incredible in the Treasures Wing. How often can one lay eyes on an original copy of the Magna Carta? Not to mention other pieces that had my little writer's heart all aflutter, including original handwritten notes by Christopher Marlowe, William Blake, Charlotte Brontë, Lewis Carroll, and Dickens. Also included in the exhibit were the handwritten manuscripts of Sylvia Plath's Insomniac and Virginia Woolf's The Hours. Did I mention that Jane Austen's writing desk was there, too?
Delaney, the aforementioned travel companion to my partner and me, has a case of recently diagnosed celiac disease and cannot eat gluten. You may be wondering, how the heck does one explore Europe and avoid, ya know, bread? Read on, mi chiquita. We shall show you.
(You can also click on her name up there. I have linked it to her Instagram, where she was shrewd enough to add a 'gluten-free' story highlight to catalog her foodie finds. Follow her, she's good people.)
We crossed the Thames on foot and explored Borough Market, an open-air trader's market for fresh food, pop-up stands, and other goods. Here, we found vegan pizza (for me) and gluten-free chicken marsala for Delaney. The first real step into a foodie adventure was upon us.
The first tourist-y thing to cross off our list was the Tower of London. Delaney, who would be watching Six later this journey, was overjoyed. This vantage point of the city allowed for panoramic shots of the Tower Bridge and the Tower of London itself, of course. I picked up a little souvenir for my parents and we hit the road, exploring Oxford Circus before calling it a night.
Day One Recap
City: London, UK
Area(s): King's Cross; City of London; Soho
Best Find of the Day: Borough Market
What Did We Learn: The British Library is a treasure not to be missed.
DAY TWO: The Best Pies in London
Revitalized, we found a totally vegan and gluten-free breakfast joint, Farmacy. So far, London was proving to be a gluten-free paradise for Delaney!
The plan was to see Big Ben, or the clock tower. To get there from Farmacy, we would have to cross Hyde Park and Kensington and Buckingham Palaces. It was the perfect lineup! Crossing the parks led us past one of several memorials to Princess Diana. While we didn't opt to tour the palaces, we did enjoy the photo ops and the beautiful blue skies.
Unfortunately, upon arrival at Parliament, the clock tower was found to be under renovation. While we were unable to see the landmark, we did have a good sense of humor about it all.
Hungry once again (which I suppose is normal when you're on your feet endlessly traversing the city), we crossed the Thames again and headed toward Gabriel's Wharf, a small market of shops and cafes on the river where we came across Pieminister.
Andrew, the man behind the counter, was definitely a highlight of the journey. He's a small business owner, a traveler, and lived in the States for a while himself. While our pies warmed, we discussed everything from London to New York, to Brexit, and everything in between. As new arrivals to London, he gave us this advice:
"Take the Underground to Camden. Locate Primrose Hill. Climb it to the top. My grandmother used to do this with me when I was a boy. Don't look back. You have to face the top of the hill at all times. When you get to the top, you'll find other people there doing the same thing as you. They'll be up there with music; they'll be hanging out; they'll be dancing; they'll be looking out on the town; they'll be smoking weed. When you get to the top, then and only then can you turn around."
Hold that thought. We had other things to do this evening between now and then, so we saved his advice for later. In the meantime, we walked Delaney to the Arts Theatre for Six, to which she had the last ticket of the evening.
Alfre and I went looking for dinner. At the behest of a close friend of ours who is a chef himself, we were to eat at Rules, the oldest continuously operating restaurant in London (since 1798!). Unfortunately, it was a little out of budget for this trip (like, omg? What kinda boujie-ass friends do I have? Just kidding, I love you endlessly, Adán). We did however end up at The Bear and Staff, a pub where I was not disappointed with the veggie pie and mash. Alfre, a fish and chips connoisseur, also approved.
After dinner, we met Delaney back at the Arts, where we began our trek to Camden. We navigated the largely residential streets - not nearly as well-lit as the inner city we'd come from - until we found the hill. The climb took several minutes, but at Andrew's command, we did not look back.
Yes, there were other people. Yes, there was music. Yes, there was weed.
It was a bit past 9PM, and the sky was an inky black. When the three of us had reached the summit, we turned to look out on what was so special to Andrew and his childhood. Ahead of us was the full view of London, in all its breadth, with a breathtaking light show.
We sat for a few minutes to take it in. There was no option not to.
Day Two Recap
City: London, UK
Area(s): Kensington; Hyde Park; Westminster; Covent Garden; Camden
Best Finds: Pieminister; Primrose Hill
What Did We Learn: Listen to the locals.
DAY THREE: Covering Ground
Our morning started with Fleet Street. Yes, we absolutely wanted to pay homage to Sweeney Todd, but my writer's heart was again aflutter with history. Fleet Street, for centuries, was the heart of London's publishing scene. John Milton lived here. Many of the pubs popular with English journalists back in the day are still in operation there.
We took a few Sweeney Todd pics and moved on to the next thing, the Tate Modern.
The Tate was beautiful (and huge), but it was Jenny Holzer's exhibit that got my attention. I've always loved her - had I known she was on exhibit at the Tate I would have bee-lined for her. There's something magical about stumbling into familiar territory, though.
Following tea was Mary Poppins on the West End at the Prince Edward Theatre. Hm, well, a lot happened that night at the Prince Edward, which will be recapped on another blog in the near future! (wink, wink).
Day Three Recap
City: London, UK
Area(s): City of London; Soho
Best Finds: Jenny Holzer at the Tate
What Did We Learn: Love is strong. More on that later.
DAY FOUR: A Solo Adventure in Paris
By 5AM, we were settling into our seats on the Eurostar from St. Pancras to Gare du Nord. I watched the sunrise over the English countryside on the train from London to Paris before dipping beneath the English Channel.
I was heading into Paris with no real knowledge of the French language, but a basic understanding of what it is to be a good guest in a country that doesn't speak English as its first language. English speakers (Americans in particular) take the prevalence of our native tongue for granted and assume that since most Europeans are brought up bilingual, that it's perfectly fine to begin conversations in English and expect your counterpart (the French, in my case) to follow along unperturbed.
This is rude. I want to avoid being rude.
For the remaining days in Paris, I began all my conversations with, "Bonjour/Bonsoir, I'm sorry, I don't know French, is that alright?" putting the pressure on myself, rather than rudely putting it on the other person by asking, "Hey do you speak English?" This gives the person the opportunity to switch to English, or find another person who knows English.
Beginning in French to show you're at least trying is better than nothing. And always remember merci and s'il vous plaît.
...and if you're curious, "gluten-free" in French is simply, "sans gluten."
When we emerged on the other side of the English Channel, the next hour or so of French countryside was some of the most gorgeous nature I've ever seen - and bear in mind that I spent a lot of time in the Texas Hill Country as a kid.
We arrived tired and weary to our new AirBNB just outside of Gare du Nord.
Travel advice from Alfre: Don't worry about booking your lodging in the city or close to landmarks. Book your lodging near the train station. You'll be thankful when you're lugging your baggage to and from the trains when you arrive and depart. And from that station, you're connected to everything you want to see.
We were within a predominantly African immigrant community, which meant the smell of food in the streets was something to behold. The mix of French patisserie and pan-African cuisine was enough to keep our hunger gauges clicked on any time we came or went from our private apartment. I'm still drooling.
I digress - Alfre needed a moment to sleep, but you know me: Restless. I took to the streets alone. We weren't far from the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur (about a 15-minute walk), so I stepped out to see what I could see. Along the way, about halfway there or so, I stopped into a small patisserie on the corner of Rue Myrha and Rue des Poissonniers. I don't know the name of the place, because none is clearly displayed. An awning simply says "boulangerie patisserie" repeated on every side of the corner space it occupies. There's nothing on Yelp, either.
Further research suggests the name is probably Artisan Boulangerie Confiserie - still nothing on Yelp or TripAdvisor, though. Regardless, it's a gem.
For a mere €1.70, I walked out of there with a sizable baguette and a coffee, on which I munched while overlooking a dreary grey Paris from Sacré-Cœur.
When my travel companions were up-and-at-'em, I joined them for a trip to see the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe. Alfre insisted that we not climb the Tower, but instead climb the Arc, so we could see the Tower from there. I couldn't knock that logic. After what felt like an eternity on the Arc's spiral staircase, we entered the museum, and then the observation level.
The streets of Paris are made of gold when you look at them from there. The Eiffel Tower, what looked to be mere blocks away, was lit in its full evening splendor. There was a moment when we waited with bated breath for the clock to strike 8:00. Every hour, on the hour, for five minutes, the Eiffel Tower glitters before returning to its golden glow. The romance of it all, truly.
We nightcapped with dinner at a gluten-free cafe down the block.
Day Four Recap
City: Paris, France
Area(s): Goutte d'Or; Clignancourt; Eiffel Tower; Arc de Triomphe
Best Finds: The mysterious patisserie.
What Did We Learn: Explore on your own. It's not as scary as you think.
DAY FIVE: Disneyland Paris
When you're traveling with two Disnerds, you know you have to go to Disneyland Paris. We spent the whole day in Disneyland, devoting a day of the trip to exploring the cultural differences between the France and the United States.
For instance: Couldn't find turkey legs there, nor churros. But you know what they did have? Wine and champagne in a cart at the entrance, crepe carts everywhere, and waffles. How French!
My favorite was Phantom Manor, the French take on The Haunted Mansion ride, which is my favorite part of any Disney park I've been to. In America, the featured haunt is ghosts and poltergeists, because that's what the American mind is frightened of. In Paris, there is significant reference to The Catacombs, with animatronic decayed skeletons and in place of specters.
Day Five Recap
City: Paris, France
Area: Disneyland Paris
Best Finds: Phantom Manor, personal opinion
What Did We Learn: The cultural differences between the U.S. and Parisian fright.
DAY SIX: Halloween in the Catacombs
Okay, y'all. It's no secret that Halloween is Gay Christmas. This is my favorite holiday by far, and I was a little bummed to see that France apparently doesn't celebrate it.
(I say that while fully acknowledging the absolute privilege it is to even be able to travel to France at all - none of this is to suggest that anything about Paris was "a bummer")
While France on the whole may not celebrate it, in Paris, perhaps due to much worldly influence, there was a slight Halloween presence. Not a lot, but the occasional ghoul and goblin would appear in a shop window or some such thing.
To start our day off, we stumbled into Chez Suzette for some of the best crepes we've ever had. We even returned later in the day for a round two. Following breakfast we saw Notre Dame, looking good all things considered. The construction fences keep you far away, but still close enough to get a nice look at her. Down the block is Shakespeare and Company, the bookstore founded by George Whitman after the original that had been founded by Sylvia Beach in the 1920s. Since the current location's opening in 1951, it's been the center of bohemian literary culture in Paris... I bought a book and a mug, and easily could have been lost in the store for many hours on end.
At the Musée d'Orsay, we goofed around a little while taking in the sights. We really probably shouldn't be allowed into places like that, but we have fun anyway. Should you make your way to the d'Orsay on your own some day, do yourself the favor of finding the glass clock overlooking Paris and the Seine; or the Salle des Fêtes, a breathtaking gilded room used for special events, but usually is just empty and open to the public - a work of art itself.
As the sun set, we lined up at the entrance to the Catacombs. The fact that we were planning to see this historic spot on Halloween of all days was by design. The walk through the tunnels was much shorter than we expected, but fascinating nonetheless. An entire wall of the bones of folks who died of leprosy in a single hospital; a single cross, set there at a time when France was against the Church; tales of covert 19th century concerts beneath the streets of Paris.
Day Six Recap
City: Paris, France
Area(s): Kilometer Zero; Invalides; Petit-Montrouge
Best Finds: Chez Suzette
What Did We Learn: There is beauty everywhere you look, even in the darkest places.
DAY SEVEN: The Phantom and the Grave
Our day began back at Sacré-Cœur, which you may remember I explored solo a few days back. This time, with my partner and our travel buddy all well-rested, we were able to take in the sights together. At the top of Sacré-Cœur (which is a hill) is the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur, a massive, ornate catholic cathedral.
After walking through the cathedral on our own, we descended the hill about halfway, where one finds a street lined with shops and cafes. For breakfast, we ate at The Hardware Société, an Australian cafe with two locations: Melbourne and Paris. The interior is filled with communal tables, and we were sat with, coincidentally, two Americans.
I had some of the best rice pudding I've ever had while chewing over the travel stories from our American tablemates. One was from California, the other from Arizona, but both are now studying nursing together in the south of Spain. They were on vacation as well, and with them we talked food, Europe, Spanish custom, and our shared homeland.
Never ones to stay in one place too long, we hit up the Palais Garnier, which, if you're unfamiliar with the name, you'll be familiar with the setting: It's the opera house that The Phantom of the Opera is set in. This opera house, like much of Paris, is a terrific work of art itself. The culture and opulence of Paris' history is embodied in places like the Palais Garnier, the Musée d'Orsay, and as you'll read later, the Louvre. Simply walking through the halls was worth the price of admission.
And yes, the famous chandelier over the house is extraordinary.
Rounding out our night was a trip to the cemetery. Père Lachaise Cemetery, to be exact. The paved trails and looming mausoleums look like a city within the city. I must be honest: I didn't know who was buried here. I know - someone who loves spooky shit as much as I do, and I didn't research Parisian cemeteries before the trip? For shame!
Thankfully, Delaney can be counted on. She whipped out her phone - connected to an international data plan - and hit up Google to see who there was to see. Among the residents of this little Paris was none other than Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, Chopin, and Oscar Wilde, among others.
We visited the individuals listed above to pay our respects. Coincidentally, during this trip I was rereading The Picture of Dorian Gray, and happened to have it in my bag with me at the cemetery. Thanks, Oscar.
Before retiring for the night, we crossed the Seine on the Pont de l'Alma on foot to visit the Flamme de la Liberté, a recreation of the flame atop the Statue of Liberty which serves not only as a symbol of French-American friendship, but also as an unofficial memorial to Princess Diana. The Flamme is located above the tunnel where Diana's chauffeur fatally crashed their car while attempting to flee paparazzi in 1997.
Notably, in addition to flowers and candles for the Princess of Wales, there is painted graffiti on the wall behind the monument that reads, "IT WAS THE QUEEN!"
Day Seven Recap
City: Paris, France
Area(s): Clignancourt; 9th Arrondissement; 20th Arrondissement; Chaillot
Best Finds: The grave of Oscar Wilde
What Did We Learn: Open your eyes, know where you are.
DAY EIGHT: Farewell, Paris; Hello, Frankfurt
Our last day in Paris began with the Louvre. It's fascinating to me that the building has been around since the 11th century. Take that in for a moment: The 11th century.
The building lived many lives over its first few hundred years, including as a fortress, a royal palace, and the home of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres and the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. It only became the Louvre Museum as we know it in 1793 (with additions and expansions over the years thereafter).
Within its halls are the Venus de Milo; Mona Lisa; the Winged Victory of Samothrace; a full Egyptian wing of sarcophagi, statues, and relics; and many more elaborate ceilings, in case you haven't seen enough during your time in Paris. We traversed a good bit of the museum - as much as we could considering our time - and saw all of these, but we missed much more than we saw. According to Alfre, we should have taken three good days to see the whole thing.
The flight to Frankfurt was brief (it felt like under an hour) and we were soon searching the town for dinner. Delaney, who remember is gluten-free, found Langosch am Main.
Y'all, lemme tell ya. Langosch am Main was one of my favorite experiences of the trip. Our waiter was super cool. The food was excellent. The atmosphere was grungy, but fun. I ordered the Henninger Kaiser Pilsner, a beer local to the Frankfurt area. And while I normally try to eat vegan (or close to it, at the very least), I ordered the schnitzel because it was my first time in Germany. With it was the option for red or green sauce. I asked the waiter which one he prefers, and was told in no uncertain terms that I had to get the green one.
According to him, the green sauce is a source of pride in Frankfurt, and most places make their own. It's a traditional green-colored sauce for schnitzel (or whatever you like to dip in it) made of a handful of herbs, usually with a yogurt base.
Spoiler alert: It was perfect.
After dinner, we explored Altstadt, or old town, which is the center of old Frankfurt with much of the city's Gothic architecture. The city is by and large a very modern city, and the seat of German finance. Altstadt however is like stepping back in time. Though skyscrapers reach into the clouds from behind the squatty gabled historic buildings, it's easy to lose yourself in the past, still.
Day Eight Recap
City: Paris, France // Frankfurt, Germany
Area(s): Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois, Paris; Altstadt, Frankfurt
Best Finds: Langosch am Main
What Did We Learn: Don't sleep on adventure.
The following day, we flew back to Houston from Frankfurt. It was an early morning flight that lasted eleven hours. Thankfully, it didn't feel like eleven hours (food and tea service on long flights is truly a blessing).
As much as I love a good adventure, coming home to my goodboi (read: dog) Wolfgang is always the cherry on top.
I showered the airplane off of me.
Got into bed.
Wolfang cuddled with my legs, as he does.
And I rested for work the next day.
Thanks for following along,