January 31st, 2015
I wake up early again and head downstairs with the Canadians. Over breakfast, we discuss the art we saw yesterday and the Louvre. At one point, someone brings up the question:
“What makes something art?”
Is it skill?
Is it content?
Is it commentary?
I remember as I sipped my coffee, it came to me.
“Art says something (or at least attempts to say something) that’s real.”
There was a quiet consensus on that fact, and I still believe that to this day. These kinds of moments are what I love most about traveling. Between the shitty wifi and the fact that you know your time with others is fleeting, you tend to engage on deeper levels than you ever did back home.
After breakfast, we gathered our things and began the long walk to the Eiffel Tower. It was a hazy grey day, with rain in the forecast for later. We hustled over, hoping to beat the rain.
When we arrived, likely due to the forecast and the cold, there were very little crowds. The crowd that did exist was all in line for the elevator. Happily, we went to the ticket booth and got our tickets for the stairs, and began the ascent.
The first climb up one of the sprawling “legs” of the tower was easy. Once we made it up to the first staircase, we were at the glass observation floor that makes up the “skirt”. You can look below at the spattering of other tourists and passersby crisscrossing underneath the tower.
We kept climbing, the excitement of the experience making any fatigue unnoticeable. Winding step after winding step, the arrondissements of Paris unfolded beneath us. I don’t recall much talking, more walking and looking out every so often with a “wow”.
Despite the grey clouds that loomed the sun would cut through here and again, not allowing the City of Lights to go completely dark.
The last leg of the climb, much to our chagrin, is elevator-only. The final journey to the very top of the tower. So we waited patiently in the queue to get in the large, boxy, glass-windowed elevator that would take us all the way to the top (or rather, just short of it).
A short ride later, and we were there. The topmost observation deck. Paris unfolded beneath us all the way to its outer limits. Standing at the top of one of the most iconic structures in the world. At the top, there’s a little shop where you can buy champagne, for after or during your proposal, or a rose or other such romantic things.
There’s little doubt why so many people choose this spot to pop the question. The iron structure practically creaks with romanticism. We walk around the perimeter of the observation deck, each of us absorbing it in our own silent reverie.
As well as taking extremely excited looking selfies.
Once it begins to get too cold and we’ve taken every photograph we can, we head back down the tower. First, down the lift, then another plodding descent down the stairs.
No sooner did we step out of the south leg of the tower and back on the Champ de Mars, the sky began to open up. It was as if it held out just enough for us to do our tower climb, and now came the release.
Starving and getting drenched, we quickly attempted to find a restaurant that was open for lunch. We decided right after climbing the Eiffel Tower was an appropriate time to splurge on a proper meal. You plan those wisely when you’re backpacking, usually only one or two per city so as not to blow your budget.
We crossed over the Seine and passed the Palais de Chaillot. The rain was pouring now so we scurried from menu board to menu board, trying to find some cuisine the looked like it would hit the spot without blowing the bank entirely.
A few streets in, freezing and ready to eat, we settled on a cafe at the corner of Rue Lauriston and Avenue Raymond Poincaré, Ducale Cafe.
It was warm and dry inside and we quickly settled in and ordered a nice bottle of wine (which in Paris is still only about 15-20€). The man helping us was one of the owners and was cheerful and warm. The menu consisted of mostly of classic French dishes, and a few that looked mildly Mediterranean.
We ordered our food, then sat back and sipped on the wine and talked. We chatted about life back home, where we would be off to after Paris (I was coming towards the end of my trip while theirs was just beginning), and what life might look like after we stopped traveling.
Then the food came, and conversation momentarily ceased as we devoured the delicious, rich dishes.
I had lamb with roasted garlic and wine sauce. It was utter heaven, rich, sweet and savory.
Once we had our fill, we returned to chatting until the first bottle of wine emptied. We selected another from the menu and called our server over.
“Oh no, you don’t want that one!” He exclaimed. “It’s no good, we’re getting rid of it from the menu soon, you will not like it.”
Now, a note to my American friends who will travel. In France, the customer is not always right. In fact, when you go out to purchase or consume food, the Boucher, the fromager, or the sommelier are the expert, not you. And if you order the wrong wine to go with your dinner, they will correct you. This is largely a reason why people come back from Paris commenting on how “rude” the servers can be because they insisted that you should not have a rosé with your steak. The idea is that you’re not just paying for the food, you’re paying for the restaurant or shops expertise in that food.
So our server quickly pointed to a cheaper bottle of wine on the menu and said, “This one is much better, better for your food too. I will bring both out for you to taste but I guarantee you will like this one better.”
Moments later, he returned with two bottles. First, he poured a tasting of our original selection, and he was right, it was far too sweet and didn’t compliment our rich dishes well at all. I remember wrinkling my nose as soon as it hit my tongue.
He poured from the second bottle and much to our surprise, since again, this was the cheaper option by about 5 euros, it was absolutely perfect. A lovely red with a balance of spice, sweetness, and dryness.
Trust your servers folks.
This brings me to the second thing that I love about dining out in Paris that often takes people by surprise or bothers them. Your server will ignore you. They will not be at your table every ten minutes, refilling your glasses and making sure your food is good while you’re trying to chew it. If you need them, you call them over, be it to order, for more drinks, or for the check. Otherwise, they’re going to leave you to enjoy your food and the company you’re with.
We sat at our table for over two hours, drinking and talking away while the rain poured outside. Not once did a server hover around our table, hoping we would leave. There were a couple other tables like ours as well, friends enjoying drinks and chatting for well over an hour.
Entire tables (ours included) would step outside for a smoke and then come back in to continue drinking. The culture of food being something to take your time with and socialize over is something that is sorely lacking in the American dining culture, where waiters need to turn as many tables as possible to survive.
In Paris, they’re paid a living hourly wage, they couldn’t give a fuck if you’re there ten minutes or three hours, their paycheck stays the same so they don’t need to harass you.
So we drank and talked until the rain abated. With a happy buzz and full stomachs, we headed back out into the street.
Our next stops of the day were the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Élysées, which were just a short walk away.
Having already seen one overhead view of Paris already, we decided to forego the climb to the top of the Arc de Triomphe and instead admired it from a distance. It was getting dark when we arrived since the winter days were short. We took our photographs and then began a stroll down the Champs-Élysées.
It’s a bewitching walk in the evening, with the shops all lit. We didn’t have a dollar to spend at any of them but that didn’t stop us from admiring the window displays and the stylish interiors.
Finally, when our feet couldn’t take it anymore, we headed back to the hostel. On our way back, we stopped in a little corner store and picked up some bread, cheese, and a 1€ bottle of wine each.
Back at the hostel, we had something of a picnic lunch on the floor of our room as we downloaded the details of the day. Then our eyes set on tomorrow. With today’s outing being another resounding success, we decided to keep the group together for the next stop on our corresponding lists: Versailles. Just a short train ride away, we decided to head out first thing in the morning together to visit this monument to opulence.
After our picnic dinner, the boys decided to head down to the hostel bar, but thoroughly exhausted as I was, I decided to head to bed. I let the cheap but delicious wine lull me into a dreamless sleep.