Some of you know that I just had the fantastic opportunity to spend a week in Paris (the first half of the week courtesy of my husband J.’s company and the fruits of his labor, the second half of the week courtesy of J.’s personal pocketbook). I had such high hopes of blogging each day while abroad, but if you have ever been to Paris you know that, once there, the last thing you care to do is tie yourself to a laptop. From the moment your foot steps out of that airport taxi, you are blissfully immersed in the beauty and romance that is France.
After about an eight and a half hour direct overnight flight from Houston, with a couple of in-flight meals, several alcoholic beverages, a smidge of sleep (because I have a partner who flops on a plane), and one viewing of Moneyball (loved it, by the way), we arrived. I was really too excited to be tired. We headed to baggage claim where we were met by several other company travellers, who had also just de-planed, and a pleasant shuttle coordinator touting a friendly, “Bonjour!” I had been given great advice by blogger Hilary Billings of NomadGrad.com to simply be polite with the French. Say “bonjour” when you enter a store or restaurant and “au revoir” when you leave…basic courtesy is all they are looking for. So “bonjour,” “bonsoir,” “au revoir,” and “merci” quickly became commonplace in my dialogue. After practicing a little French on the plane, I also acquired an affinity for the number 18… “dix-huit,” pronounced “dee-sweet.” Unfortunately I never got to use that one. Dang it.
The drive from the airport to the hotel was a moving exposé in graffiti. I have actually never seen so much graffiti in all my life. I live in the fourth largest city in the U.S. close to downtown, but we have a graffiti abatement team in our area that is next to none when it comes to cover-up. They must not have the same team between Charles de Gaulle and downtown Paris.
We unloaded at the hotel valet area, where they were holding everyone’s bags because rooms were not yet ready (it was about 10:00 a.m. at that point). “Here you go Mr. S.,” said the bellhop, “here is the ticket for your bags.” I looked over J.’s shoulder and began counting…one, two…holy crap. “Where is the other bag?” I protested. “Those are our bags,” J. retorted. “No! The OTHER bag. The hanging bag that your dad let us borrow???” He very simply replied, “It’s at the airport.”
You are freaking kidding me that this is how our trip is going to begin.
We headed upstairs to the company’s reception check-in area to claim our badges (if you read my previous post you know how I hate name badges) and relay to the coordinator our issue with the bag. She assured us that there would be no problem recovering our bag, but it was the kind of assurance that left me with a not-so warm and fuzzy feeling, as her sentiments were mixed with, “Here…pick a red, white or blue armband for the community service project tomorrow.” I half-heartedly smiled thinking, “Whatever lady…I just need my bag that has ALL of our evening wear for EVERY event for the next 3 nights!” We picked blue bands and headed back downstairs.
“That lady isn’t convincing me,” I sighed. After twenty-two years of attachment to me, J. knew that he would have no hope unless he resolved this, so he disappeared for over half an hour while I was left to sit on a cushy couch outside the hotel restaurant to do a little people-watching. It was now that my sleep deprivation kicked in. All I wanted to do was recline like Giorgione’s Venus on that couch and close my eyes for a good five hours, minimum, but I thought it best not to nap in the lobby of a 450€/night minimum hotel and I had definitely better keep my clothes on. Yes, the Intercontinental® Paris – Le Grand was lovely. The attention to detail in the downstairs main rooms was nothing short of exceptional. I marvelled as I looked around, ”Would this be what all of Paris would look like?” I had no idea.
J. finally appeared and explained how he went through two separate women upstairs for help with the bag, calls to Air France®, and some crazy conversation with a representative who said we would have to print out a form from their site, fill it out and fax it to a specific number. Fax it? Seriously? Who does that anymore? J. said, “Let’s just go back to the airport and then we can take the company shuttle back to the hotel again.”
So off we went to explore our first Paris mass transit experience…the bus. Nothing special to report there, only that you had better be ready to get on and get off quickly. Not being much of a mass transit user in Texas, I found that I could likely get run over if I didn’t hurry along. At the bus stop a girl did approach me with some sort of a clip board and said, “Do you speak English?” I said, “Yes,” and she started in on some explanation about something that looked like a petition, to which I quickly said, “No, no,” as I could feel J.’s eyes penetrating the side of my skull with the glare of, “Don’t talk to anyone!” I quickly checked my purse and our pockets to make sure they hadn’t been picked, shrugged sheepinshly and boarded the bus.
“Bonjour,” said the bus driver. Huh. Even bus drivers say “bonjour.”
Back through the graffiti we went. Hello Charles, you old so-and-so, I mused, as we stepped out AGAIN at the airport. The African gentleman with the French accent at the services desk, so strange to see and hear when you are used to living in Texas, was very helpful and gave us a ticket to go downstairs. We were to then wave at him in front of a camera and he would let us into the baggage claim door. Odd.
Downstairs we went, and there, much to our happiness, was our sweet shuttle coordinator. She helped us navigate through the camera/door and into the lost baggage area and there, right where it should have been, was our beautiful, black hanging bag, folded and secured as we had left it. All my slaving away to prepare for a week of fashion was now saved! Hallelujah!
We had to wait awhile for other company travellers to arrive before the next shuttle left, so we grabbed a sandwich. Even at the airport, my sandwhich of ham on butter on a baguette was awesome. This would begin my love affair with French cuisine and my complete understanding of Julia Child over the next seven days. Ooh la la.
You know how sometimes you get lemons and out of them you squeeze lemonade? That’s what happened with our bag debacle. Thanks to that bag we then met the nicest couple from Seattle, G. and M., who would become some of our best travel friends over the next three days. I was glad at the end of the trip to have forgotten that bag.
With our room now ready at the hotel. It was time to nap. So we thankfully fell into this…
…so soft, so plush. I couldn’t be happier. Just to enjoy the quiet, quite a luxury when you have a two year-old.
Before long it was time to dress for the evening kick-off reception at the Palais Garnier opera house across the street. The nearly 400 company attendees and their significant others convened in the lobby downstairs and the event coordinators began lining us up. Before we knew it, we were being paraded out the front doors and across the street to a literal red carpet entrance to the opera with a full drum corp flanking us on either side. I love hats, and if ever I should have been wearing a hat, this should have been it. We felt like kings and queens in a procession walking up those grand steps. And it was quite the spectacle. People were gathering from the streets around our procession, taking pictures and waving. I’m quite certain that’s the closest I’ll ever get to celebrity status. So fun!
Palais Garnier was magical. J. and I love opera. We’ve seen Verdi’s La Traviata at the Fox Theater in Atlanta and Puccini’s La Bohème at the spectacular Sydney Opera House, but this…this was how opera should be enjoyed. This was a step back in time to when opera was opera. As if the gallery areas outside the performance hall weren’t enough, with their grand staircases, exquisite frescos and huge fireplaces, a step into the theater itself underneath the massive gold chandelier suspended overhead left every spectator is sheer awe. “Who changes those bulbs?” J. mused.
The Palais Garnier was the inspiration and setting for Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. There are, in fact, wells and a water reservoir underneath, which gave way to the idea of the lake in Phantom.
We didn’t get to see an opera or a ballet, we were just there to tour at our leisure and enjoy a bevy of cocktails, wines, and hors d’oeuvres on the company’s dime. We walked through room after room of beauty allowing our senses to be completely overloaded, finally deciding we had better grab a table.
I scanned our various options, and then, much to my surprise, noticed a few Juliet-style balconies overlooking the string players that were fitted with two-tops. Could this be possble? The center table appeared to be open. There was a group of people chatting and blocking it from view. I looked at J. and pointed, “That’s where we’re sitting!” He looked surprised, “Are you sure we can sit there?” But, like a woman on a mission, I was already headed past him in a quick dash to grab my spot in the limelight.
“Is this table taken,” I asked the group blocking it from view. “No,” they all seemed to reply in unison. Excellent. So, there we sat, center-stage, just we two as the melodies of the strings played below.
We got quite the attention at our little table. One of the event coordinators passed by and said, “Ah, quite the tête-à-tête.” Even the company’s C.O.O., C. E., stopped and said, “Has anyone taken your picture? How did you score this spot? Wow!” To which one of the other execs jumped up and said, “I’ll do it.” So there we were, likely dining where very few people had ever dined before (nevermind the guy who appears to be chipping off a piece of the marble behind us for a souvenir).
I was in love and had only been Parisian for twelve hours. We closed down the party at the open bar on the bottom floor and left out the main entrance as we had come, less the drum corp. Garnier was even more magnificent at night (Paris, to be honest, is even more magnificent at night). As we prepared to cross the street to the hotel, we took one last photo of her in all of her glory.
As would be the case every night, the party continued at the hotel bar. We waited in line to order one glass of champagne and one gin and tonic. Then we got the bill. Holy #$%@! Are you kidding me? J. asked the bartender just to confirm that we were looking at the correct numbers. News flash people…the bill for hard liquor in Paris will kick your butt, take your name, and stomp on you in the dirt. And it doesn’t really matter where you go (we checked out the menu wherever we went). I told J., “No wonder people want to live in America.” Here’s the menu if you don’t believe me. And remember…that’s in Euro…so even the conversion is NOT in our favor.
From then on we decided that if the bill was on us, we were drinking wine. Wine prices are pretty comparable to what you would pay in the states. Besides, who doesn’t like wine, bread, cheese and chocolate?
As Day 1 came to a close and we quietly strolled down the hall to our room, I couldn’t wait to see what Paris had in store. I was already delighted, but there was oh so much more for the taking.