Kelli, our friend from college, invited Traci and me to travel to Paris with her and her friends to celebrate her 50th birthday. It did not take much convincing for us to accept the invitation.
[Note: See also the Things I Really Enjoyed and Things I Would Do Differently lists from our first visit to Paris.]
We sent our deposit in April 2019. For the months leading up to the celebration that took place December 2019/January 2020, excitement was building as we enjoyed posts from Kelli and other travelers in "Kelli's 50th Adventure" Facebook group.
There were 15 of us (Kelli included) who traveled from the U.S. to Paris to be a part of the celebration. Our group consisted of people from Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Michigan, and Illinois. Kelli, Candace, and Carvel are friends of Traci and mine from our days at Hampton University. Kelli and Traci are sorors and distance runners; therefore, Traci already knew some of the other travelers from their common interests of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and distance running.
with friends in Paris for "Kelli's 50th Adventure"
Although Air France had direct flights from Washington Dulles Airport to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, I booked us on Aer Lingus which connects through Dublin, Ireland. The flight was about $400 cheaper than Air France at the time.
My coworker Bob dropped Traci and me off at Dulles for our overnight flight that departed at 5:25 PM. It felt strange to be carrying our winter jackets on this freakishly mild December day that approach 70°F. Make no mistake, we would need them in Paris.
It was a comfortable 6-hour flight to Dublin which seemed to zip by. I ate dinner, watched a movie, and took a nap. Before I knew it, we were landing in Dublin. The interesting thing about Aer Lingus is that their announcements are given in English and in Irish (Gaelic), an ancient language that is spoken in only a few regions of Ireland today.
The employees in Dublin Airport were so friendly and helpful to us groggy travelers. The airport brought back memories of when Traci and I traveled to Ireland back in 2013 to attend the wedding of one of Traci's coworkers. Our 1.5-hour flight from Dublin to Paris was delayed by an hour but we were eventually on our way. As we were coming in for the landing, I could see the top of the Eiffel Tower protruding out of the blanket of morning fog that covered the city.
Getting to our hotel from the airport was a bit of a challenge. Our instructions were to call Parishuttle for our transfer after collecting our luggage. Since we did not have working mobile phones in Paris, I had a lady at the information booth call for us. Unfortunately, no one at Parishuttle was answering the phone. The lady told me that there were others who were also waiting for Parishuttle. Just then, she spotted a Parishuttle driver. I joined the crowd of people around him trying to get information about our transfer. He instructed everyone to wait near the exit and provided an estimate of when we would be picked up. The estimate he gave Traci and me was 30 minutes - and so began our waiting game. It became somewhat like being on the Price is Right. Each time a shuttle driver would arrive, everyone would wait to see which names he would call. There was much jubilation when a person's name was called. Those of us who were still waiting would even give a sort of congratulations to the lucky people.
While we waited, I got up the courage to chat in French with a French lady who was seated near us. After my disastrous attempt to use my long-forgotten high school French when Traci and I first visited Paris in 2003, I made the commitment to become bilingual. Since then, listening to Learn French by Podcast has been my morning ritual for the first five minutes of my work commute. I have also been attending a local French conversation group for years. This twice-monthly meeting gives me the opportunity to practice speaking with native French speakers and French teachers. And now, here I was, 16 years after committing myself to learning French, with my opportunity for a redo. I still do not speak the language fluently. I would probably need to live somewhere where I am forced to speak it every day to get to that level of proficiency. However, I can understand most of what I hear and I am comfortable with speaking it in situations that a tourist would face: restaurants, hotels, transportation, stores, etc... I was pleased at how comfortable I felt speaking to the lady in the airport. This was the shot of confidence I needed to take more chances with speaking French for the rest of the trip. Most of the people we met in Paris could speak English but I had always heard that people are more willing to help you if you attempt to speak at least a few words of their language. I always took this with a grain of salt. My belief was that people are willing to help you if you are polite and respectful. However, after my experiences in France this time, I am starting to think there might be something to learning to speak the language. What I noticed is that when people found out I am from the U.S. and that I am learning to speak French, they were initially surprised that someone from the U.S. wanted to learn their language and then they would often allow me to practice speaking with them. Everyone I met in these situations was so kind. On a few occasions, I actually received gifts from people. For example, one night as I was waiting for Traci and others in our group to finish taking selfies in front of the Eiffel Tower, a Senegalese souvenir vendor approached me to sell me some of his souvenirs. Even though I did not buy anything, we chatted in French for a few minutes. As I was leaving to catch up with Traci and the group, he gave me one of his miniature Eiffel Tower souvenirs as a gift. Another time, a nice cashier at McDonald's allowed me to order breakfast in French even though she could speak English. She told me she would not charge me extra for the jelly to go with the croissants I bought for Traci and me. And then, there was the sweet shopkeeper who smiled as she gave me a bag of cookies for free when I bought some souvenirs. So maybe there is something to attempting to speak the language of the place you are visiting?
At last, 45 minutes after we were told to wait at the airport exit, a Parishuttle driver arrived and called the names of Traci and me. It was our one minute of fame as we said goodbye (and au revoir) to other travelers we had met while waiting. The driver made another stop at a different part of the airport to pick up more passengers. Among them were Tracy and Torvia who were also in Paris to celebrate Kelli's birthday. There was a lot of traffic and our driver was rather aggressive but we made it to our hotel safely.
Kelli's birthday celebration consisted of approximately a one-week stay in Paris (December 29, 2019 - January 4, 2020) during which time we would participate in planned activities as well as enjoy free time. Traci and I elected to stay four nights beyond the one-week celebration so that we could do daytrips to other parts of France that we had not yet visited. The week of activities were booked for the group by Kelli's travel agent, Dawn Calhoun of Delta Travel. I had never met Dawn but I corresponded with her via email while solidifying our travel itinerary. She also recommended an excellent hotel for the additional nights that Traci and I stayed in Paris. I am humbled by the effort she put into making sure our group had a wonderful time in Paris. She wished us a bon voyage a few days before we departed for France. Kelli mentioned to us that Dawn had been battling illness while planning the trip but I had no idea just how sick she was. It was during our extended stay in Paris that Traci and I received word that Dawn had passed away.
The hotel for the first week was called First Hotel, Eiffel Tower. It was a small boutique hotel with six floors containing eight rooms per floor. Traci and I were lucky in that our room (408) was larger than the other rooms in the hotel. The one drawback was that we did not have a balcony facing the Eiffel Tower like some of our friends. Our view was that of another building. This was not a big deal as we preferred the extra space.
When we entered our room, we found candy and a handwritten note from the staff welcoming us. We received a complimentary thick glass bottle of drinking water each day. The staff was always friendly and helpful. Housekeeping was accommodating and kept our room spotless.
A breakfast buffet was available each morning for 10€ (approximately $11 U.S.). It was just a step above a continental breakfast. I was fascinated by the orange juice contraption. It produced fresh-squeezed orange juice from the basket of oranges the staff loaded at the top. I ate at the buffet three mornings and enjoyed it. Traci was done after the first morning because she prefers her eggs scrambled hard and she was not a fan of the weird, light-colored sausage.
candy and a handwritten welcome letter on the bed
loved the light fixture
The hotel is located in the 15th arrondissement (neighborhood). Paris is sectioned into 20 arrondissements that spiral outward from its center. During our first visit to Paris in 2003, Traci and I stayed in a more touristy section of the city near the famous Louvre art museum. This time, I enjoyed the contrast of that first visit as we had the opportunity to experience Parisian life in a less touristy section of town. People in this neighborhood walked with purpose while chatting on their mobile phones. In the mornings I would see the line of people stopping by the local boulangerie (bakery) next door for their bread. Cars, buses, motor bikes, and even a few brave souls on bicycles navigated the crazy street traffic.
Our hotel would have been considered a very convenient location if it were not for national strike happening in France at the time. It was in protest to the proposed pension reform. The strike, which was ongoing for almost a month, had metro lines, trains, and buses among other services shuttered or operating on very restrictive schedules. This rendered the metro stop in front of our hotel useless during our stay. We had to get used to walking and taking Uber. Sure, it was a slight inconvenience for us tourists but for those who live and/or work in Paris, I'm sure it was misery. The few buses and metros that were running on highly restricted schedules were jam-packed. Traffic was horrendous. Some of the hotel staff decided to stay at the hotel because it was just too much of a hassle or too costly to try to get home and return to work.
could not use the metro station in front of our hotel because of the strike
Even with all the traffic, people drive very aggressively in Paris. Crossing the street as a pedestrian could be dicey at times. Sometimes it would look as if it were safe to cross and then suddenly a vehicle would be speeding towards you from a direction you weren't expecting. We soon got accustomed to waiting for the red man symbol to change green to indicate it was safe to cross the street. Even this required nerves of steel because vehicles would sometimes approach the crosswalk so fast that we were wondering if they were going to stop.
It was nice to finally meet the people face-to-face who participated in the Kelli’s 50th Adventure Facebook group. They were arriving at the hotel at different times based on when their flight landed and/or how lucky they were with Parishuttle. Ten of us walked to a nearby café called Le Cafe du Commerce on the recommendation of the man working the hotel reception. It was a nice way for the group to get to know each other. The highlight of the meal came when Traci did not like the fish that was part of her fish & chips meal. The waiter told Traci that the fish is prepared fresh but perhaps she had gotten a bad piece. To verify, he got a knife and fork and then cut a piece of Traci’s fish. He put the piece in his mouth and as he was chewing it, he said that the fish was indeed fresh. This was one of the few times that our fun-loving group was rendered completely silent. We were all stunned that he ate off Traci’s plate. The waiter then went on to say the reason Traci did not like the fish could be that us Americans are used to eating processed food instead of fresh food. Huh? Of course, this became a running joke with our group about preferring processed foods. Anyway, Traci did manage to eat some of the fish despite not liking it. It has been our experience when dining in Europe that they generally will not take an item off the bill or bring you something else if you are not happy with it.
By the time we arrived back at the hotel after lunch, others in our group were arriving. We did not have any group activities scheduled for our arrival day. Our main priority was to fight jet lag. To do this, we decided to walk to the Eiffel Tower which was about 15 minutes away. It was interesting to watch life go by in the hectic city. Cars, motor bikes, and buses were jockeying for position on the streets and in the traffic circles. There was a pervasive smell of cigarette smoke in the air. The cafes and brasseries were filling up with diners.
We eventually arrived at the Eiffel Tower which has been standing in Paris since 1889. We could not help but to begin snapping photos and selfies. The iconic structure was all lit up since the sun sets so early in winter. To add to the spectacle, the Eiffel Tower does a dazzling light display that begins at the top of every hour after dark. All around the tower are vendors selling souvenirs. Most of the vendors we saw seemed to be of African descent. In addition to the vendors, there were plenty of tourists and security – both police and military. We saw soldiers patrolling other parts of the city as well. They carried large guns.
The Eiffel Tower does a dazzling light display at the top of the hour.
One thing that has changed since Traci and I first visited the Eiffel Tower in 2003 is that there is now a transparent barrier that surrounds the base of the structure. In recent years, France has experienced turmoil such as protests and deadly terrorist attacks. There was a long line of people waiting to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Since we already took the elevator to the top during our last Paris trip, Traci and I did not ascend the tower this time.
For dinner, we dined at Le Royal Cambronne located just a short walk from our hotel. More of Kelli’s guests had arrived by this time so our number was up to 12. The Royal Cambronne became the late-night hangout spot for our group during the week. The varied menu consisted of French food such as duck confit and escargot in addition to more familiar foods such as pizza and fries. Traci was still batting zero with the food in France. She ordered a vegetable soup. Instead of our idea of vegetable soup in which there is a broth with vegetables, it was a pureed bisque. Traci did not like it, so she helped me eat the four cheese pizza I was enjoying. She did not care for the goat cheese though which was one of the cheeses on the pizza. We had another unexpected twist with this meal. I ordered a lemonade. I knew from past trips to Europe that it would most likely be a fizzy lemon drink; however, I was not expecting the waiter to bring me a can of Sprite. Ah, the joys of travel. No problem, the Sprite worked for me. Things were looking up for Traci by dessert. She and I shared the tart tartin which is like a thick apple pie without the crust. It was served with vanilla ice cream.
We enjoyed catching up with our college friends over our meal at Le Royal Cambronne as well as getting to know our new friends with whom we would be sharing our Paris adventures. I was surprised to see that the restaurant had some NFL games on their TVs. We startled a few guests and waiters when our table of Americans occasionally cheered after a touchdown or a nice play. The staff at the restaurant was very friendly and accommodating to us. They did not even seem bothered when our group asked if we could pay for our meals separately.
It was a great first day in Paris. Furthermore, we had accomplished our goal of fighting jet lag. Traci and I managed to stay up past 10 PM. continue...