shoebox in paris

Thoreau said, “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”  

It’s a fair sentiment, though with my budget, I’m more likely to be crowded on a pumpkin.

Using AirBnb, the glorious startup that connects travelers with private homeowners in the perfect meeting of supply and demand, I’ve had the comfort of a cozy, well-priced place to sleep in Strasbourg, Lyon, and the Riviera.

I’ve also found a few pumpkins: simple, private, and deathly uncomfortable.

The most memorable is a studio apartment in Paris.

“Apartment” is generous, “broom closet” somewhere closer to the truth. I think the ad, actually, described the place as A Shoebox in Paris. I respect “Olivier” for the honesty. While poetic, he did not use “shoebox” as a charming diminutive, but as a realistic description of the room’s actual dimensions.

The room was the size of a spacious American bathroom.

But it was Christmastime, and the idea of it all was irresistible. Despite arriving via a seven hour OUI bus from Strasbourg, it felt impossibly glamorous to be spending the week in the City of Lights. Given my history of misadventures, I should have known better, but once again I was starry-eyed. I pictured museums with no lines (and I’d get in free with my carte d’éducation). I dreamt of flawless French classics: buttery steak and perfect crème brûlée. There would be a light snowfall around the Eiffel Tower. 

It was so close: the perfect winter vacation, great escape from Montluçon. But first we had to lug our bags up six flights of stairs.

The task accomplished, the first problem we encountered was where to put our two suitcases. To give an idea of the available space, the bed was such that, should you share it, one person was effectively sleeping in the “kitchen” (a hot plate, a sink), while the other lucky traveler had an excellent view of the bathroom, sleeping nearly inside it as they were.

You had to step on the bed (and over a sleeping roommate), to access the bathroom, actually, which “closed” via a sad little accordion door and which contained a crusty bar of soap and an emphatic note in a rough English translation explaining how exactly to flush the cantankerous toilet.

There was one spot of glamour in the room, a small coffee table that accumulated over the course of our trip articles that advertised an entirely different sort of vacation, the kind that doesn’t involve freezing showers, the kind that might allow a bath towel in place of a washcloth.

The table held bright new novels from the Shakespeare & Co English bookstore, a bottle of pale pink Chanel Mademoiselle, and the creamy pastel boxes and bags from our visits to Ladurée for macarons that, temporarily, made me feel like a queen at Versailles instead of a mouse in a shoebox.

This wobbly balance between glamour and grunge became a theme for the week (and truly, for my whole life in France).

Christmas Eve, we wandered around looking for that perfect little brasserie. An hour and a walk through Montmartre and Pigalle later, we admitted defeat and had Christmas Eve dinner in a Chinese traiteur. We sat in our skirts and tights and heels and ate egg rolls and orange chicken, eight euros a person. The restaurant was empty, save for the family that owned it: the little girl playing by herself, the father watching a ninja movie in the corner. But we ate on fine, pretty plates and drank wine out of heavy glasses, leaving lipstick on the rim.

Then we went to Christmas service at the Notre Dame. Candles, the Christmas story in French. The organ music thundered through the cathedral and I felt stunningly small faced with all this grandeur, all that history, all those people.

Christmas Day we spent at the Pompidou, the quietest I’ve ever seen that place. My Christmas tree this year was a modern art piece: colorful bulbs that lit up suddenly every few minutes.

For Christmas dinner, wanting to avoid Orange Chicken Part II, we googled best Christmas dinners in Paris and booked one, a splurge. We ate at a beautiful place in Montmartre, feasting on oysters and foie gras and a fruit salad with lychees and the recommended wine pairing. The restaurant was full of non-Parisiens. The locals, we assumed, were home with their families.

The trip, like our AirBnb, wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. It was exhausting. Paris was cold, rainy, and gray, and there were more tourists than ever.

One day we went out of our way to go to a Christmas market near Nation. A far cry from the Christmas market we’d enjoyed in Strasbourg, this one was dripping and pitiful, on its last day. Most booths were closed, and still we got conned into buying expensive cheese. A lady yelled at me about gingerbread. We talked with a chef selling Portuguese custard tarts who disclosed his love for Merle Haggard and started singing “Okie from Muskogee” (definitely the best part of that day).

Overall we spent too much time in the dystopian underworld that is the metro, and we ran out of money and had to eat lentils for a month afterwards.

In pictures it is lovely, all pale sunsets and gold lights, but really it was cold and cramped and a little lonely in the way that Christmas without your family can be.

I know this, remember this, and still I am nostalgic. How was it that not so long ago I rented a terrible, memorable little shoebox in Paris with my best friend? Where are the croissant crumbs and freezing fingers, or, on fortunate nights, the oysters and champagne? Where are the endless espressos and afternoons free to wander?

Christmas in Paris was like the room’s promoted “Eiffel Tower view”: both sound a little more glamorous in the telling.

But we did have our shoebox view. It was there, if we stood on the bed to see out the high window. If it wasn’t obscured by the January clouds.

The trip, the view: awkward and uncomfortable and lovely still. There it was, if we were lucky: the top of the tower, sparkling brilliantly into the night.

 

all lit up: la fête des lumières

Last month Mary and I (and several million of our closest friends) went to Lyon for La Fête des Lumières.

We took a train (well, an autocar and two trains) to get to Lyon, and popping out of the Part Dieu metro and up into the city on a sunny Saturday, I realized I knew exactly where I was.

In college I spent a summer in Lyon studying French. Those few months represented a lot of firsts: first time flying alone, first time going to a foreign country to live with strangers, first time drinking wine and going out…oh, and my first time speaking French in France. louis-xiv

The trip gave me so many new experiences and several good friends. When I look at my sun-kissed pictures from that summer, that’s what I remember. There we are eating paella in Marseille, swimming in the Mediterranean, walking through lavender fields in Provence, climbing the winding steps of the Notre Dame.

But the reality was more complicated, filled with the kind of stuff you don’t take pictures of. There was a lot of getting lost, embarrassing moments, red cheeks, unintended offenses, and vows to never leave the house again. There were a lot of headaches, something that happens when it takes extreme concentration to follow a simple dinner table conversation. There were some tears. Oh, and a sinus infection.

So, despite les belles experiences, of which there were many, I never felt quite à l’aise (at ease, comfortable) in France or in Lyon.

It took some time, but I no longer feel like France is out to get me, so it was satisfying to be back in Lyon with French fluency, confidence, and an evolved sense of direction.

We walked from the Part Dieu to the Parc de la Tête d’Or, where I remembered Stephanie and I having picnics in the grass after class, me falling asleep in the sun reading Anna Karenina. We passed the lake where Florent and I would feed stale baguettes to the ducks and geese.

As we approached the rivers, all I could think about was how beautiful it was. How had I lived among this and not gaped at the beauty of the bright-colored buildings along the Saone, or the splendor of the Basilique de Fourvière jutting out high above the city?

I then remembered that I had. But I’d become accustomed, as one does to both beauty and hardship. C’est normal.  lyon-saoneimg_5347

The time away gave me the chance to see Lyon’s beauty anew, since my current “normal” is a small sleepy town; riding a bike by the light of the moon should I decide to participate in nightlife.

Throughout the weekend Mary and I played tourist, standing in lines for brioche aux pralines from a well-known boulangerie, talking at length with artists selling work along the river, hiking up to Fourvière for the view, eating quenelles in a cozy bouchon.

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But the main attraction, bien sûr, was Saturday after dark. It was the third and final night of the festival of lights, and the city was lit up like a fairytale world. Buildings glowed along the river, and cathedrals, bridges, train stations, and more were completely transformed by color and sound.
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There were over 41 light installations, little shows that played on a loop from 8 pm to midnight. There was a dreamy short film projected onto a ferris wheel, dancing robots, dinosaurs, lanterns, and a virtual sun rising and setting on the hill high above the city. Some of the pieces seemed to provide a kind of cultural commentary, some of them just seemed fun.

All together, the effect was that of a surrealist dreamworld, of getting swept away by neon lights, beautiful music, twinkling bridges.lyon-fete-nuit

Unfortunately, that also meant getting swept along by the crowds: the several million people I mentioned earlier. Lyon is one of France’s bigger cities, but typically feels quaint and cozy compared to Paris. Both population and tourist-wise, Lyon doesn’t come close to Paris. Except, I learned, during this festival.

We stood miserably pressed together, able to take a step or two every minute or so. I couldn’t help but think of the times I had a whole square or a whole street nearly to myself. The upside? All that body heat made the low temps a little more bearable.

It wasn’t so bad for the majority of the installations, where you were free to walk around as you pleased, but this was the “line” for perhaps the most popular installation: the projections on the front of the Cathédrale St. Jean, a work called Evolutions.

Happily, it was worth the wait. It’s fair to say it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen: bright 3D lights transforming an ancient cathedral into a moving piece of art. There were falling leaves and breaking glass, lace and waves, all accompanied by a futuristic instrumental piece that sounded like something by STRFKR. The anachronism between this structure, in the middle of the vieux part of a city deemed a UNESCO world heritage site, and the weird and wonderful things now happening on its surface, was a delight to see. There was even a point where the artist made the cathedral seem to “short out” and flicker off, like it was a TV station with bad reception. Such a playful way to question perception.

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It was hypnotizing and beautiful. I stared, transfixed, and watched the show twice.

how to speak to Santa Claus in French

We’ve survived a bleak November, and Montluçon is getting its Christmas makeover. bienvenue

Music plays and lights sparkle into the night. The festivities are a little haphazard: instead of one cohesive carnival, there are attractions scattered around the city. Bumper cars at the foot of the chateau, some food stands across the street. A five minute walk brings you to the main attraction: the little marché de Nöel in front of the Hôtel de Ville.

France loves its Christmas markets. Typically, they last all throughout December, and are set up like a little Christmas village. You stroll around and eat, drink, shop, and play games or go on rides.

I was pleased to find that Montluçon does one too. It’s small but quite charming, with little booths that look like elf-sized log cabins forming the perimeter of the space. At these booths you can buy wool scarves, fine chocolates, sausages, fondue cheese… There’s a tiny skating rink with a big Christmas tree in the middle, an oyster bar, and, my favorite, several stands selling cups of vin chaud, steaming hot and ladled out of huge silver pots.

Vin chaud, or hot mulled wine, is a magical drink, tasting more like Christmas than anything I’ve ever tried. It’s made with red wine, wintery spices, and something to make it sweet, such as honey.

My favorite café here does it best. The flavor is perfection and they give you a little spoon to capture the grosseille berries and orange slices at the bottom of the glass. The café is in the medieval part of town (a circular area near the Cher river). It’s called Les 12 Apôtres (the 12 Apostles) and is right next to a medieval church and across from a used bookstore selling ancient Tintin comic books. montlucon-dusk-moto

du-vin-chaudLast night we went to the marché to have a glass of vin chaud for Mary’s birthday.

The wine wasn’t as good as my dear 12 Apôtres, but the atmosphere was festive, and who did we see but Santa Claus.

It was definitely him, Père Noël, but his shoulders were stooped, his steps slow. He trudged around the festivities in a slow circle. Even from behind, he looked decidedly unjolly. And disconcertingly thin.

Still, we wanted a picture. I didn’t want to catch up until I had my approach. Typically, Santa does the work: well what would you like for Christmas? But I had a feeling that French Santa, probably unaccustomed to the demands of American consumerism, would stare at me blankly after my bonsoir. What do you want and why are you bothering me? No twinkle in his insouciant French eye.

We walked slowly behind him, waiting for the right moment. “This looks creepy. We have to stop doing this,” Mary said as I took a picture of him with my camera.

“Fine, let’s just go.” As we sped up, something came to me. “Wait! Do you tutoie Santa Claus?” Tu versus vous (informal vs formal form of address) is often ambiguous even for the French. There are some clear rules: you always use vous with strangers (unless, say, someone runs off with your purse), you never use it with children or animals (inquire after a cat’s well-being with comment allez-vous and look at the smirks you’ll get). Usually I do okay, not without my share of accidental tu‘s and hasty corrections, but this was one of those situations they don’t teach you in school. Does politesse entail using the formal form of address with Santa Claus, a Christmas character in a velvet suit?

Probably. 

We got our pictures, and as expected, he was not exactly full of cheer. No Joyeux Nöel, even. He did, however, leave us with a mumbled à bientôt (see you soon).mary-et-pere-noel

I won’t get my hopes up. While my list would include perfume, Chanel nail polish, travel money, a food processor, and a nice pillow, French Santa would probably just tell me to appreciate what I already have; eat more salad.

I’ll have to count on American Santa, if he can find me here. We don’t even have a fireplace.hotel-de-ville