Wednesday, August 17, 2016

paris: day three

Day three is when I realized I had fallen head over heels in love with Paris. Like, I was heartbroken that I had to leave to go to Rome. You know you're hooked on a place when you're about to go to ITALY and your heart is like "nope! I want to stay here forever." As soon as I got home I looked up the rates for renting an Airbnb next year for a whole month. I wish I could live there.

Every single place I went, I loved. I loved the little hole-in-the-wall stores, the parks, the people, the cats, the history, the SCENT (Sabrina wasn't kidding when she said Paris smells its sweetest after it rains.) At home I normally feel so uncomfortable talking to people, but in Paris the language barrier was almost a godsend. Rather than being awkward whenever I had to break my silence, I really tried my hardest to speak what little French I knew, or asked (in French) if someone spoke English when I reached my linguistic limits. A saleswoman at The Galeries Lafayette taught me how to say "I don't speak French" in French. The guy who worked at Cine Corner teased me about my crush on Alain Delon. I chatted with a shopkeeper about my tradition of going on carousels with my grandmom when I was buying a souvenir at a tiny handmade toy shop in the Latin Quarter. Somehow I felt more at ease talking with other humans, which was totally unexpected -- if you read my first trip post you'll remember that I literally holed myself up in my hotel room when I arrived because I was so afraid I wouldn't be able to communicate with anyone!

I keep throwing around the word love, but honestly, I just loved everything and everyone I met and I can't wait to go back and discover more.

Okay, so ... Day Three! 

I started out at Montmartre Cemetery again. Remember when I said that I had a five-minute staring contest with a cat in a cemetery? This is that cat. (If you're having trouble spotting him, he's between the two green plants.) This photo was taken right before we started staring.

I sat for a while on a bench in the cemetery writing in my trip journal (I did SO good at writing things down in Paris, but then didn't keep up with it in Rome. I still want to go back and jot some stuff down before I forget!) but then I noticed a tiny spider in my hair and realized that maybe a cemetery isn't the best place to hang out.

My next stop was The Galeries Lafayette, a giant elegant shopping mall with a (free!) rooftop terrace with an EPIC view of Paris & The Eiffel Tower. My mom tipped me off to this before I left on my trip, but I was still stunned when I walked out onto the terrace and took in this view. It was scorching out, so I got a mango sorbet and that just made everything even MORE perfect, just when I thought it had reached peak perfection already.

I also did a little shopping... it was mostly upscale retailers (like out-of-my-price-range retailers) but I did pick up a sweater on clearance and a little scalloped Ted Baker bag (this one.)

My next stop was the Café de la Paix for a giant bottle of water and light "lunch" (cough, dessert, cough) I was being a giant movie nerd here -- the main reason I went was because Anna Karina and Jean-Luc Godard had their first date here. Earlier this year I saw Anna Karina at The Film Forum & heard her tell the story in person, so it was just a really special movie geek thing for me.

Speaking of being a movie geek, the next thing that I did was to get a taxi to the Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé, where they were showing one of my favorite movies, Le Samourai. I think the ticket-taker was a little confused since I clearly didn't understand anything she was saying to me in French when I was about to watch a movie without English subtitles, lol!

I was hoping that I'd seen it enough WITH subtitles that I'd be able to follow along just fine without them, and I was right. It's not really a very dialogue-heavy movie to begin with (the first word isn't even spoken until about 20 or so minutes into the film) and it was genuinely fun to watch it without having to glance down at the bottom of the screen for a translation every few seconds. I could pay attention to the visuals, the actors' faces, even their voices were resonating more with me now that I was really listening, not just putting all of my energy into reading. It was definitely one of the highlights of my trip!

After that I went to McDonald's again (bathroom break!) and people-watched for a little bit before getting a taxi back to the Notre Dame area. It was getting late, so I thought I'd try to walk to The Lourve from memory and then get a taxi back to the hotel from there. Once I got to the Lourve (I *did* remember how to get there! eep!) I saw a couple walk into the museum, even though I knew it was closed on Tuesdays. So I followed them, and discovered that the grounds are still open even when the inside is closed. It wasn't very busy (I guess most tourists are like me and assume the whole thing is shut down on Tuesday) the sun was just about to set, and it was BEAUTIFUL.

I honestly can't put into words how magical this night was for me. I had my headphones in, and I just aimlessly wandered the grounds of The Lourve listening to my favorite music, people-watching, sitting by the fountains, all with a perfect view of the Eiffel Tower in the distance. I strolled into a park (I'm not entirely sure if it's part of the museum or just situated next door?) and found a little food stand where I bought a sugar crepe & mineral water and then sat by a lake.

DOES THIS SOUND IDYLLIC? BECAUSE IT WAS. I can't think of any other time in my whole life that I felt so overcome with beauty. It was so peaceful, lovely, in-explainable. I wish I could close my eyes and be back there.

As I left The Lourve, I walked through this little fairground area that just screamed "Kate, take pictures of me!" Then I got a taxi back to my hotel, and stood by my window eating a baguette, watching The Eiffel tower sparkling in the distance, putting off sleep as long as possible because I didn't want it to end.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

paris: day two

I started my second day in Paris with the group bus tour, which took us all over the city in about three hours -- we saw the Eiffel Tower up close (photo here!) drove past the Arc de Triomphe and The Lourve, and along the Champs-Élysées and the Seine. Each tour or excursion had a different local guide, and the Paris guide was my favorite. She was so funny ("Why is Napoleon buried in five separate tombs? To keep his bones apart!" lol!) and informative and her tour route covered enough area that it helped me feel comfortable with direction when I was walking around on my own later.

The tour ended around noon at Notre Dame, and our tour director helped everyone plan out their individual itineraries and gave us instructions for how to get back to our hotel via the Metro. At this point I made a bee-line for The Musée national du Moyen Âge, or The Museum of the Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages are my favorite historical time period, and, of course, being from America there isn't really much in the way of Medieval structures in my neck of the woods (with the exception of The Cloisters in New York which is comprised of elements of Medieval structures that were brought over from Europe. It's one of my favorite places to visit on the East Coast.) So I was beyond excited to visit this museum! It's a 14th century monastery built on top of a Roman Bath that dates back to around the first century. It was turned into a museum in the 19th century, and it has some of the most beautiful artwork and relics from the Middle Ages.

In many of the rooms they had literature you could read about the artwork, available in multiple languages (including English.) There was also an audio tour available at the front desk, but I chose to just wander at my own pace. According to one of the flyers, the sculptures pictured behind me in the photo above were originally part of Notre Dame. They were discovered in 1977 and donated the museum -- apparently they had been used in the 1700's to shore up the foundation of a rich man's mansion @_@

I'm really glad that I didn't bring my DSLR with me -- I felt like I was already lugging around enough photo equipment and I only had my point-and-shoot and instax with me -- but in this moment I really wished I had a wide-angle lens to capture how massive the Roman Baths were. This space was cavernous... it might be the first time that I've ever felt the scale of ancient structures. The oldest European structures in America tend to be of Colonial design, when doors and ceilings were impossibly short. When I think of the "grandest" buildings I've been in in America -- Grauman's theater, Radio City, the US Capitol Building -- even then nothing compares to this. I felt so small, physically but also historically.

Okay, don't make fun of me. I went to McDonald's. In Paris.

I had to go to the bathroom (ironically though I actually forgot to go while I was there) so I ducked into the first McDonald's that I saw. They had computer screens for ordering, where you could select your language. I got pommes frites (!) and a coke and then noticed that they had a second floor seating area. I popped in my headphones, took out my notebook, and sketched for about 45 minutes while overlooking the street. I think I paid something like 3 euros for this view. While obviously I wouldn't recommend eating American fast food while you're overseas, this was undeniably an awesome and super affordable experience for me, and I would definitely recommend it. On Day 3 I grabbed a coke at a different McDonalds' location with an equally pretty view (I don't have photos from that one, but someone was moving into a fifth story apartment across the street, and having their furniture delivered through the window. It was a fun people-watching moment!)

My next stop was CineCorner, a little DVD shop in the Latin Quarter. It can be very difficult to find foreign films in America unless they're released by Criterion, so I was REALLY looking forward to visiting this shop!

Just a tip: If you're a film fan and decide to stop here while you're in France, make sure you have a region-free DVD player at home. French DVDs will not play in a regular American player. I got my region-free player on Amazon here. Honestly if you're a fan of foreign films, you should get one regardless of whether or not you'll be traveling abroad. There are tons of foreign films available online in Region 2, and more often than not they usually have English subtitles. (In French look for "sous-titres: Anglais" on the DVD box)

Anyway. This was definitely the highlight of my day! I stocked up on films, and when I was about to check out I noticed a giant Alain Delon (my favorite actor) coffee table book on the shelf behind the register. I just about squealed!

My last stop of the day was at a little cafe situated right across the river from Notre Dame. The owner was incredibly sweet -- his sweetness only rivaled by the INCREDIBLE chocolate mousse that I ordered there. It was the best chocolate mousse I've ever had in my life. This was also the first time that I attempted to speak French (outside of "Bonjour!" and "Merci!") I apologized for my poor French and then said "C'est formidable!" (It's terrific!) and he understood what I meant! It was one of those moments you hope for when you're going to be traveling to Paris for the first time -- something very unique and special and, well, French!

outfit details: dress - asos | shoes - blowfish | bag - vintage

Friday, August 5, 2016

paris: day one

I arrived in Paris in the early afternoon, and then, as I said earlier, I spent about three hours in my hotel room. I took a short nap and watched an episode of Orphan Black on Netflix (sidenote: in Paris, Netflix doesn't stream The Office, 30 Rock, OR The X-Files! Luckily I had two of my Office DVDs with me so CRISIS AVERTED.) I also spent a pretty good amount of time staring out my window, because THIS was my view:

I think this actually helped ease me out of the room, though, because seeing such a beautiful city waiting just outside your door makes it all the more difficult to stay cooped up inside. Now the next thing I did might seem kind of weird if you don't know me that well, but my very first stop in Paris was the Montmartre Cemetery.

It had been on my list of things I wanted to see in Paris before I knew where I'd be staying, but once I received my hotel assignment and realized I'd be one street away from the cemetery, I knew I *had* to stop there. It's the resting place of my favorite director, Francois Truffaut, so I visited his grave to pay my respects and then strolled through the grounds for a little while. It seems like a park, a lot of people meander through or sit on the benches situated along the cobblestone walkways under a beautiful canopy of trees.

It was such a peaceful, gorgeous place that I actually returned there on my last morning in Paris and sat down for a little while to write in my trip journal. There are cats that wander the grounds there (I legitimately had a 5 minute staring contest with one of them, it may have been the highlight of my whole trip.) so it helped calm my "I miss my cat!" feelings.

My mom brought me up to be okay with cemeteries. She likes to read the names on old headstones aloud, so that names that might have remained unspoken for centuries are still remembered. I'm so glad that I was raised this way -- to have a reverence and respect for cemeteries, to appreciate their beauty and be okay keeping company with the dead -- rather than to think of them as spooky, eerie or unsettling. If you're of the same mind as me, I'd highly recommend visiting this cemetery if you're ever in Paris. It was so beautiful, and even though they built a road above it it's still remarkably quiet and peaceful.

I kind of wandered aimlessly after that, and found a little bakery where I bought a baguette to munch on for the rest of the afternoon. Around 6pm I met up with the rest of my group for a planned dinner in Montmartre (it was pretty good, but definitely not my favorite meal of the trip) after which our guide led us on a walk around town to get acquainted with the area we were staying in. I regret that I didn't actually hang around in Montmartre after this -- I spent the majority of my free time in the Latin Quarter -- and I definitely want to rectify that when I go back. It seemed like such a beautiful, quaint part of the city and the views from Sacre Coeur were BREATHTAKING.

I feel ignorant admitting this, but I had no idea that it stayed light so late in Paris (and Rome.) When we got out of dinner it was around 9pm but it still looked like it was the afternoon! It didn't even begin to start looking like dusk until around 10pm. Whoever coined the term "magic hour" for sunset clearly must have been in Paris when they did so, because I've never seen a more magical sight in my life. Everything glows, and then it's tinged with the most beautiful blue. I don't even know if it's describable. On my last night in Paris I experienced this time of day at The Lourve and it was, hands down, my favorite part of the trip. I feel so dramatic saying this but I honestly could have wept at how beautiful it was.

outfit details: dress - modcloth (old) | shoes - blowfish | bag - vintage

Thursday, August 4, 2016

go ahead

For my first time traveling abroad alone, I decided to sign up for a group tour. I booked my tour last November in a burst of late-night spontaneity. I'd like to say that I spent hours - nay, weeks - researching and making sure I was making the right decision and going with the right company, but in all honestly I read a few yelp reviews and then impulsively put down a deposit for a one week trip to Paris and Rome with Go Ahead Tours.

Luckily, I made a good (albeit reckless) decision. I'm about to gush over Go Ahead now, and as much as I wish I could say this is a sponsored post, it most certainly isn't. I paid for my whole trip with my own money. I just really loved the tour company and would definitely recommend them, whether you're like me and want to test the waters of independent travel or even if you want to go with friends or family. There were a lot of couples, mom + daughter duos, best friends, etc. in my group and I'm planning on taking my mom on a tour next fall.

That being said, I *do* have a referral link, so if you want to book a trip with Go Ahead, you'll get $100 off if you click here to do it. I obviously can't speak for any of the other trips they offer, but the Paris + Rome 7 day tour was amazing and I highly recommend it.

After I booked the trip, I got a welcome packet in the mail with information about my trip -- a very brief itinerary and some information about the payment schedule. I don't know what the timeline is if you book closer to a trip, but I put down a deposit in November and had until May to pay it off. I chose to include my airfare in the package, but you can do it separately if you want to use airline miles or just prefer to book it yourself. I have a United MileagePlus credit card, so I think next time I'd use my miles (I just didn't have enough saved this time around.)

One of the fun things about this particular tour was that you could choose whether to do something with the group every day or just go it alone. The only time that I added an extra excursion was to see The Catacombs and St. Paul's Basilica in Rome. But they also had extra outings like a dinner with Tenors in Rome, a dinner cruise along the Seine in Paris and a trip to Versailles. Even the itinerary that's included with the base cost of the trip (a 3-hour sightseeing tour in each city, breakfast every day, and a welcome & farewell dinner) are totally optional if you don't want to participate. You can have the tour company take care of your travel arrangements and then completely forgo the "group" part of the trip.

When it got closer to the trip (about 2 weeks beforehand) I got a giant package in the mail with more information. This is where I learned about some of the little details that had been in the back of my mind ("How will I get to the hotel from the airport? Where do I meet my group?" "When do I eat dinner?" etc.) It also includes an emergency phone number that you can call if anything goes wrong during any part of the trip. They also send you a branded carry-on bag, which is a really cute idea but personally I'd suggest leaving it at home or else you'll have "tourist" written all over you. If that's the look you're going for it's obviously fine, but it's definitely like having a giant neon arrow pointing you out to pick-pockets, lol.

Speaking of pick-pockets. I personally didn't have any problems in that respect, but that could partially be because our tour guide gave us a ton of safety information when we arrived at the hotel. What to look out for (I never would have known that a lot of them try to get you to sign a petition and then steal your stuff while you're signing.) Having a local guide who knows the ins and outs of the city, as well as what sorts of cons people will try to pull with tourists, was very helpful and made me feel safer.

I was very happy with both of the hotels that the tour company picked for us. The one in Rome was a little outside of the main part of the city, but it was within walking distance to some really nice restaurants and a cab from the hotel to the city center was only about 9 euros. (Obviously there's also a metro and buses, too.) The one in Paris... let's just say, I had a view of the Eiffel Tower from my window. Does it get any better?!

In addition to the fact that the tour company takes care of the logistics of travel, there's also the "group" part of the tour. I was in a group of 35 other travelers (that is the maximum that this particular company will take on tour and I felt like it was a nice amount. Cozy, but not too crowded.) I'm incredibly introverted and didn't expect to socialize at all, but I ended up meeting three incredibly sweet girls (a mom + daughter, and another traveler who was treating herself for her 30th birthday, just like me!) and we spent a lot of the "group" parts of the trip together, as well as most of the Rome section of the tour. I had so much fun with them, and it was a completely unexpected treat for me, considering I thought I'd be doing this completely solo.

Everyone from the tour company that I interacted with was amazing. I had to move my trip from August to July a few months ago due to my original tour being under-booked, and the girl who handled it was fantastic (she even moved my flights without any work on my part.) A few weeks before the trip I started panicking and contacted Go Ahead on facebook with some questions -- the girl who helped me had also traveled alone with Go Ahead and helped put my mind at ease. And then Bojan, our tour director, was a complete sweetheart. He was a great tour guide, incredibly informative and great at makings sure that everyone was where they needed to be (I had to run across the airport to make sure I was at my gate for our flight between Paris and Rome and he was holding up the rear making sure I made it onto the plane.) He even helped me find toothpaste when I realized I had left mine at home. I'm sure I would have either spent hours wandering around Paris my first night there, or I would have just chewed on a bunch of tic-tacs and hoped for the best.

Overall, I was pleased as punch with my first group tour and I would definitely do it again. I have comments disabled here, but if you have any questions about Go Ahead or group travel in general just leave a comment on my IG or facebook and I'll try to answer as much as I can :)

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

traveling alone

I'm going to break down the trip into several posts, but today I just wanted to talk a little bit about what it was like to travel alone for the first time, just in case anyone else out there wanted to give it a try or was just curious about what my experience was like.

Um... it rocked. IT ROCKED MY SOCKS OFF. 

Obviously I didn't know what it would be like going in. I booked the trip last November and spent over six months flipping back and forth between pure excitement and a case of anxiety so severe that for about the whole month of June I couldn't keep anything down except for water and crackers. On the way to the airport, I cried the whole time. When I had to say goodbye to my parents, I cried like a freaking baby. When I was boarding my plane I wrestled with the idea of just skipping it and going home up until the very moment we took off. I was almost phobia-level scared of doing this thing.

The rational part of my brain knew that I could do it, that I WANTED to do it. But that pesky scaredy-cat side of my brain was the one controlling my nerves, my bowels, my skin (hi there, anxiety induced breakouts!) even my eyelids were twitching on the plane. I was so nervous. When I got to the hotel, I hid out in my room for a good three hours just trying to muster the energy to go outside.

I know all of this sounds crazy, but I was really nervous and I want to be honest about it because I think if you're scared, it helps to know that I was too -- and I got through it pretty easily. As soon as I stepped outside and started wandering around I felt so much more at ease. My worries about the language barrier were entirely for naught. Everyone was incredibly friendly and helpful (one saleswoman even taught me how to say "I don't speak French" in French!) and by my third day in Paris I felt like I belonged there.

I traveled as part of a group trip (I'll write more about this in another post) and I'd recommend it to anyone as nervous as I was about being by yourself in a foreign country for the first time. You can choose how much you want to stay with the group or go it alone (I chose to eat one meal with the group, after which we went on a short walking tour of the area near our hotel. I also did a 3 hour bus tour with the group, but the rest of my time in Paris was spent by myself.) They took care of everything -- the plane, picking you up at the airport, your hotel, etc. And you have a tour guide who can help you if anything goes awry.

I googled a lot of "traveling alone" articles before leaving, and most of them seemed to focus on things like loneliness or "how on earth do you occupy yourself??" worries. I wasn't even remotely concerned about this aspect going into the trip, and even less concerned once I was there. If you're the kind of person who likes the *idea* of traveling alone, you'll probably be fine actually BEING alone. If anything it's just really fun to get to dictate your own agenda, listen to your own music in your hotel room, make your own schedule, and wander or meander wherever your day takes you. You eat when you're hungry, find a restroom when you need to, etc. While I do love traveling with friends, this was honestly my favorite trip of all time and I would actually prefer to travel alone in the future.

Literally the only downside to this trip is the fact that it had to end. I've only been home since Saturday and I'm already looking up month-long airbnb rates for apartments in Paris. Three days just wasn't enough! (If you're thinking "didn't she also go to Rome?" -- yes, I did! I just completely fell in love with Paris so I keep talking about it and kind of forgetting to mention Rome. But I'll get to it more in future posts!)

Here's a little video I put together with footage from Paris and Rome. I set it to "Human" by The Killers because I went to see them in concert the night before I left for Paris (I'll have to do a post about that, too! ahh! So much to write about!) and then I had their music playing in my headphones while I went exploring, so I'll always associate them with my trip :)