Tag Archives: Paris

Why Tour Paris? Reason No. 4: Don’t Miss the Eiffel Tower

Paris is so closely associated with the Eiffel Tower that when you see the Eiffel Tower you think of Paris, and when you see the word “Paris” you think of the Eiffel Tower. They’ve almost become synonymous with each other! The Eiffel is so well-known that it would be easy to overlook the experience of visiting it. But visiting the Eiffel Tower is not at all the same as fulfilling your obligation of going up the CN Tower or the Space Needle or some other high point when you visit a city with a tower. Obviously you get a nice view of Paris from the top levels. But if going up a tower can have an atmosphere, then going up the Eiffel Tower has an atmosphere about it. It still holds the flavour of 1889. If you are too sophisticated of a tourist to check it out, you are really missing out.

When I was first trying to convince my dad that we should go to Paris, I kept telling him that he’d love to see the Eiffel Tower. He’d done a lot of work in designing intricate steel connections between joists in his job. And he kept replying, “I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower. I’ve seen it a thousand times.” And it is constantly being shown everywhere, in pictures and on TV. But when we got there, he was impressed. “The pictures don’t really show it!” he said, going on and going about the immense size of the iron beams and the number of rivets  that held the whole thing together. And he was right–you can’t wrap your head around the scale from the little cartoon sketches of it on all the brochures. It’s obviously far from the tallest tower in the world, but it manages to convey the achievement that it was for humanity at the time, to raise so many heavy iron beams to the sky. Prior to its construction, no tower had ever reached 300 metres–or even 200 metres.

And yet–it is all enormous iron beams, and yet it’s elegant. It bears no resemblance to a cellphone tower, or an electrical transmission tower. Those are entirely built for function, and while in a sense the Eiffel Tower was purely built for the purpose of standing tall, its designers clearly paid some attention to its visual impact. Its well-known that Parisians initially thought it was ugly. But little details, like its four enormous arches, and the gentle curve of it flowing up to its point, etch it in your memory. It does not feel modern, despite having its internal structure on display in a way that’s now very common in our modern age. It brings forward a bit of the late 1800s into the present–maybe it’s the wrought iron it’s made of, or the lacy design of the arches. Its critics argued against it because they didn’t want a “gigantic black smokestack” overshadowing all the other landmarks of the Parisian skyline, afraid of historic beauty being crushed by utilitarian industry. But it is a testament to the design of the Eiffel Tower that it is not regarded as an industrial smokestack at all today.

“My tower will be the tallest edifice ever erected by man. Will it not also be grandiose in its way? And why would something admirable in Egypt [in the height of the Pyramids] become hideous and ridiculous in Paris?” said its builder, Gustave Eiffel.

You should go up it if you can, if the line’s not too long. You can even take the stairs (I haven’t tried this). I enjoyed both the highest level, with the farthest view, and the lowest level, from which you can almost converse with the city of Paris from your perch in the clouds. It’s also very fun to catch a view of the Tower at night, because it is always lit up against the sky.

***

  • Original quote from the letter opposing the Eiffel Tower: “Imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream. And for twenty years … we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.”
  • From time to time, parts of the original staircases of the Eiffel Tower pop up at auctions. If you’ve got enough extra cash lying around, maybe you can snag one for you house.

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Why Tour Paris? Reason No. 3: Bateaux Mouches on the River Seine

Most of the major cities in the world have a river or a waterway nearby, and these can be a big part of what shapes and defines the city. Paris has the Seine, of course. Since Paris began on the Île de la Cité, as we talked about last time, the river actually goes straight through the centre of the city and right past many of the major landmarks. This means a great way to take a tour of Paris is to do it by boat!

bateau mouche
Bateau Mouche by the Louvre, Jebulon, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The boats that run these tours are called bateaus mouches, and they have wide open roofs so tourists can take in the sights on each bank of the river. When I took one of these tours I did it in the evening, and they served us red wine in plastic cups. The landmarks, such as the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower were all lit up against the night sky, and the boat’s loudspeakers announced what each landmark was in several languages as we glided past them. It is thrilling to float under the stone arches of the many, many bridges that arc over the river, each of them with their own history (such as, for example, the Pont Neuf which is not new at all by modern standards–built from 1578-1601). But the booming loudspeaker takes some of the romance out of it, though at least you know what you’re looking at!

If you don’t want to pay for a tour, another way to get a similar view is to walk along the stone quays which line each side of the Seine. Each bank of the Seine is basically lined in a stone wall, with a kind of shoulder right along the water’s edge that you can walk along. These shoulders were very helpful for boats to unload their cargo in the past, which is why they are there. The city of Paris has turned these into beaches in the summer in the past, for its citizens to enjoy, and there’s also been zumba classes and gardens and other things for Parisians to do at different times of the year along the river.

Another thing about Paris is that whether you’re on the “Left Bank” or the “Right Bank” is very important. Each has its own characteristics. The Left Bank (Rive Gauche) is supposedly the Paris of artists, writer and philosophers, while the Right Bank (Rive Droite) is described as more elegant and sophisticated. However, these are just broad generalizations, and both sides of the river have enough to explore!

All in all, the river of Paris is well worth explaining, whether by foot or by boat. You will get a good dose of history and Parisian atmosphere just by meandering along this stretch.

***

When I was a child, I read a book named The Houseboat on the Seine. This was one of the works that fired my imagination about visiting Paris one day. The book is more about fixing up the houseboat itself, and about describing the Seine river, rather than about the rest of Paris–but it was definitely one of my influences for why I wanted to see the city. And when I was in Paris I did visit a houseboat that you can rent on AirBNB, so if this is your dream it is possible to try it out!

You can read more about the quays of Paris here: https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24520146

Here is the book, The Houseboat on the Seine.

My novella set in Paris, Paris in Clichés, can be found here.

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Quay by the river seine with Notre Dame
From my own walk along the quay
River Seine, locks of love
View of the Seine from the bridge that tourists like to attach “locks of love” to

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Why Tour Paris? Reason No. 2: Berthillon, an Astonishing Ice Cream Shop on the Île Saint-Louis

One fun way to start deciding what you’d like to see in a new place is to look at a map. You start to realize the layout of a city you had in your head doesn’t always line up with the layout in reality–Oh, the Notre Dame is actually on an island? Oh, the Eiffel Tower is south of the river Seine, and the Arc de Triomphe is north of it? And so on. As I was zooming in on various streets of Paris, I noticed there was not just one island in the Seine, an island which held the Notre Dame, but rather that there were two islands side-by-side in the river. And immediately I was curious about what was on the second island.

The island upon which stands the Notre Dame is called Île de la Cité, and it is actually the place Paris started. Once the city got too crowded for the island, it eventually spread over both banks of the river. And, of course, it also spread onto the island behind it, which is named Île Saint-Louis. What I find fascinating about these Parisian islands is that they’ve been so built up over the years that if they were not natural it would be hard to tell: their banks have been lined in stone, and multiple bridges arc from them to the mainland. Actually, Île Saint-Louis was originally two islands which were made into one new island for more residences in 1614. This island has no major, known-by-everyone landmarks, but it does has one relatively well-known attraction. That is the ice cream shop known as Berthillon.

According to Wikipedia, Berthillon became famous in 1961 when a French restaurant guide wrote about “this astonishing ice cream shop hidden in a bistro on the Ile Saint-Louis.” It is known as the best ice cream in Paris. Well, it is always difficult to pinpoint exactly which kind of anything is “the best” since tastes vary–and I’ve heard other shops recommended as well–but it certainly serves good ice cream made from all natural ingredients. And any ice cream shop that manages to stay in business that long and maintain its reputation for quality is doing something right.

I did try Berthillon ice cream while I was in Paris, but I did not take any pictures! It actually is sold all over the island, and not just in the original bistro, and I’m pretty sure the stand I bought it from was not the original shop. But it was an equally nice spot to buy ice cream and eat it–after crossing the bridge from behind the Notre Dame to the Île Saint-Louis, I stood on the stone pavement, listening to busking musicians, and eating peach sorbet. Would recommend 😀

If you want to know more about the people who run Berthillon, here is a great write-up of the owners:

“We pay 16 to 18 euros for a kilo of strawberries. They’re so rare and expensive that it’s not profitable, but it’s become our specialty, our most popular ice cream. If we stop now, there’ll be riots,” laughs Muriel.

The previous Parisian landmark I wrote about in this series of attractions was Shakespeare and Company.

And if you want to know what my characters do after eating ice cream from Berthillon, you will have to read my novella, Paris in Clichés.

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Why Tour Paris? Reason No. 1: Shakespeare and Company, A Bookstore as Cozy as You Imagine a Bookstore Would Be

There are two kinds of tourist attractions in Paris: first, the sights everyone knows about, even those who have no interest in Paris (the Mona Lisa and the Eiffel Tower are examples); and second, the sights that everyone who’s looked into what to see in Paris knows about, but outside of that are not necessarily household names. I would place the bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, in the second category. It is internationally famous. But while the name might have a familiar ring to many, I wouldn’t expect absolutely everyone to know what is it without explanation. 

shakespeare-and-company-1701307_1920
Image by Sierra Maciorowski from Pixabay

Shakespeare and Company is an English-language bookstore in Paris. It’s a bit amusing that an English bookstore would be a tourist attraction in French-speaking Paris, but it is—and after all, many English-speaking writers lived in Paris in the interwar years. The original Shakespeare and Company was a gathering place for well-known English-speaking writers in the 1920s, and while that original store closed in 1941, the current version of Shakespeare and Company is an homage to that original store.  

And there’s good reason it is a tourist attraction. It’s not just rows and rows of stark shelves, like your average Chapters chain store—it is the cozy bookstore of novels and movies and your dreams. It has two storeys full of books, with shelves stretching to the ceiling, and ladders to reach all the shelves. It has cozy reading rooms to sit and leaf through the books in, with pianos you can play to switch up the mood. And it has more than just those standard bookstore features: it has a wishing well in the floor where you can insert coins, with a sign that says, “Feed the starving writers.” It has a nook where tourists write little notes on scraps of paper and leave them behind for others to read. It has the words “Be Not Inhospitable to Strangers Lest They Be Angels in Disguise,” painted on the wall. And the bookshop lives up to this inscription by allowing writers to bunk among the bookshelves in exchange for helping out around the shop. More than 30 000 “tumbleweed” writers have actually done this over the years. 

This is such a unique and interesting landmark that I had to incorporate it into a story, which is why it features in Paris in Clichés. But of course I also had to see it for myself when I was in Paris. I actually found myself going back to it more than once—not only because the smell of books and the feel of a bookstore is incredibly enticing. I found that I needed to hear English once in a while after struggling on my own with mangled French for several days in a row. I stayed in Paris for two weeks, and I think I went back at least three times. It was in this bookstore that I read the first several chapters of World War Z—not the first novel you’d associate with Paris, but for me it is intertwined with my memories of the place!  

Here are a few photos which I took (explaining the poor photo quality!), to give you a feel for the place. Enjoy!

See? I did read World War Z there
Nook for leaving notes

And if you want to explore more, do not miss this great illustrated guide of the store, complete with maps! An Illustrated Map Inside Shakespeare and Company:

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Why is Reading a Good Story Set in Paris Still a Good Idea in 2020?

“Paris is always a good idea.” This was the title of one of my previous blog posts, a post written after I returned from a trip to Paris. It’s also supposedly a quote from Audrey Hepburn, though no one online seems to be able to trace when she might possibly have said it. Either way, it sums up how a lot of us think about Paris–if asked if we’d like to go, we’d say, yes please! However, this year is 2020, and the question remains–in 2020, is Paris a good idea? In a year of hardship and upheaval, is thinking about a more frivolous subject like Paris worth doing?  

Actually visiting Paris is out of the question for most of us, of course–travel restrictions, and reduced flights, and closed tourist attractions make it unlikely. But the Paris of dreams–the Paris of busy cafes and romantic cobblestone streets and boulevards of glittering, luxurious stores–is this idea of Paris worth thinking about and talking about in a year of upheaval and struggle, where everyone is having a tough go of it? It might feel like affrontive to remind people of a world that seems to have moved out of reach.  

I ask because this year I finally finished my short novella exploring Paris, and released it in print in my online store. It was lovely to retreat from the present moment into a world of memories, into the heads of characters who had different problems than lockdowns and viruses. All the same, maybe it’s a bit silly to talk about Paris right now. Maybe it’s time to be serious. 

But I think there’s different responses to hard times. One is to confront the situation head on and try to make sense of it. Another is to remind us of the warmth and goodness that we do cross come across in this world, the things that give us hope that there could be healing. The second method is sometimes called escapist-rather than facing reality, it’s accused of retreating into rose-tinted times and places. I don’t think it’s always escapist–it can take a lot of courage to hang onto hope. But in case it truly is pure escapism to read only, I will point to another quote I blogged about here long ago:  

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds… Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? 

JRR Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories 

I read that and begin to think it’s important to open the doors of escape, especially if we’re restricted to our homes in this season. And not everyone has the energy to attempt to beckon our fellow men through these doors—I certainly did not during the most unsettled parts of this year—but when we do find the energy, when some of us have it in us to think about something other than our prison walls, then it is worthwhile to bring that to others around us.  

In this spirit, over the next few weeks and months I plan to make a few posts about Paris, and the treasures you can see there. In a sense, I hope these posts will make you feel what it might be like to be there, or remember what it was like to be there–in a similar way to how my novella would make you feel. Even if you do not purchase my novella this season, come along and explore these sights with me here! Of course, if you wish to purchase my novella as well as accompany me on these posts, just shoot me an email at info@amrahpublishinghouse.com or check out my store here

So come along and we’ll peek into Shakespeare and Company, explore the islands in the Seine, and taste the yummy ice cream of Berthillon and the fluffy macarons of Laduree! There’s so many interesting places in the world to see and learn about.

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Being Alone

bookshop

Bookshop in Paris

In April of 2014, I traveled to Paris, France, alone. I mostly did it because I had not succeeded in several things in my life at that point, and I wanted to prove I was at least capable of taking care of myself on my own. Plus, who doesn’t love Paris? And I did learn I could carry myself on my own for two weeks, but I also learned how much resilience it takes to be alone.

Before I left, I dreamed of wandering down romantic streets and drinking coffee in cafes, and getting lost in museums. What I did not dream of was the effort it would take each time to leave the door of my AirBnB. My AirBnB was incredibly boring compared to the beautiful streets of Paris–a tiny room crushed under the eaves of a building in Montmartre. But however romantic the streets were, I had not counted on how it would feel to venture out in crowds of faceless strangers who cared nothing for your existence. I had to find the nerve to brave every frowning waiter guarding the entrance to the cafes. I had to find the confidence each metro train would not deposit me in a place I’d be lost in forever. I had to brave the dangers of wending through crowds as a naive tourist, all alone.

To be alone is to be vulnerable. You know that the instant you are alone, completely cut off from your familiarity, even if your new context is as safe as anywhere can be. You quickly tire of braving the irritation and disdain of strangers, of risking a smile and getting blankness in return.You tire of knowing if you do not care about what you do, there’s no one else who cares either. And you realize how vague and unreal what you see becomes when there’s no one by your side to exclaim over them with you–you are excited, but is it truly real if no one sees your excitement?

So I did learn about what it took to be alone, and I was surprised by what I learned. It was more than just learning to be content with your own company–because I have always been content with myself, I didn’t expect that part to be hard. But to be alone, more is needed. You have to also be content with vulnerability. You have to have an enormous reserve of strength to continue risking and risking and risking leaving your own door. You have to face an unfriendly world with very little in the way of defenses.

This weekend, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I lost the bravery to leave my own bedroom. Not because I was afraid of the virus, like it was lurking somewhere in the house. But I had no resilience within myself to face the complexities of living–the multiple steps of making a sandwich and getting myself coffee were just too overwhelming. It was like I was transported to an unfamiliar country where I did not know the language, and I had been tasked to navigate it by myself–transported to a brave new world where nothing familiar could be counted on. And I couldn’t do it. Whatever resilience I had found within myself in Paris to keep going out to see the Louvre, to see the Eiffel tower, to see the Luxembourg Gardens, had dried up.

To cope with my fragility, I made my world smaller.

In some sense, we’re always alone. Even now, when we’re still tenuously connected to each other through the internet, just as I was still connected to those back home while I was in Paris–connected, and yet each step taken is my own responsibility. No one else can share what we experience. No one else can care about what happens to us in the same, intense way that we care. It feels important to be able to hold on in the storm when all we’ve got is ourselves, and yet too often this is the hardest thing to do. We can’t face the storm, we can only retreat into our caves.

Perhaps this is not such a strange reaction for me. After going through a hip surgery last year, I was forced to minimize my world. I couldn’t guarantee I could succeed in making myself a cup of coffee. I couldn’t guarantee walking out the door wouldn’t trigger a wave of pain that would keep me lying on my back for a weekend. This may’ve built this reaction into me–when I cannot manage, I just don’t. I limit my world to what I can cope with. And I do not know how to find a stronger, healthier reaction.

Exposure therapy is one strategy to manage your irrational fears. My irrational fear when I went to Paris was that I was dysfunctional in a way that could not survive in the regular world, and that I would always be dependent on others to carry me. And while I did go to Paris and return, I am not sure that fear has been proven wrong. I am still lacking the resilience needed to keep risking all the steps necessary to survive in life. I keep realizing I am fragile and vulnerable and that the world does crush me.

However, life has a way of moving on, somehow. As messy as it is, I do find myself getting to the next day, and the next day, and the next. I do not know when this pandemic will end. I do not know if I will ever learn to be resilient enough to go out into the world and achieve things I want to achieve. I do not know how much I’ll have to carry by myself, or how often I’ll find others out there to walk through the next steps with. But maybe it’s hopeful enough to see I do get through it.

 

Take it one step at a time.

 

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Paris is Always a Good Idea

“Paris is always a good idea.”

– the internet would like to believe this quote is by Audrey Hepburn*

It’s been a while since I updated, hasn’t it? And definitely for some of those weeks I didn’t have a good excuse, but I’d like to believe a spontaneous trip to Paris is a good enough excuse for a least a couple of them, isn’t it?

How cliché! A spontaneous trip to Paris to “find myself” – well, not really find myself, but at least learn new things about myself. Specifically, how brave I am to travel alone. And what it feels like to be in the French culture for two weeks.

I discovered:

1.) Despite the romantic idea of writing in little French cafés, I can’t actually sit still for very long when I’m in Paris. There’s so much to see! Writing had to wait till I got home.

2.) I am perfectly capable of travelling independently. But sometimes it was more nerve-wracking than I thought it would be. Also, I learned a lot about what it means to feel “alone,” and how to manage this very human feeling. A worthwhile experience, don’t you think?

And now… some pictures! Just a few to give you an idea:

First, a very famous place for us bookish folks – The Shakespeare & Company Bookstore: Shakespeare & Co. Then the house of Victor Hugo: House of Victor HugoAnd finally, a pic of me taking refuge from the spring rain in a random art gallery in Montmartre!

art gallery, Montmartre

That’s it for now! Hope you all had a nice spring. 🙂

*note: I can’t really find a good source proving this quote is actually originally by Audrey Hepburn, but if anyone can point me the way to one, I’d love it. It does sound like the sort of thing she’d say, doesn’t it?

UPDATE: Paris is always such a good idea that I wrote a whole novella about it! Check it out: Paris in Clichés

Paris in Cliches Harma-Mae Smit

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