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A Journey Of Epic Proportions, Pt. 1; Paris

The first leg of a trip that would have us covering a lot of distance over a relatively short time

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The annual Euretina Congress was upon us again and this year it was to be held in Paris, France. Anna was speaking at the conference on the morning of September 3 and attending other events as well. We figured that while we were in France on this occasion we should venture out of Paris for the first time once the conference was over. Anna and I got married in Colmar Tropicale, a fake french village in Berjaya Hills, Malaysia so we decided we should take the opportunity to visit the real village of Colmar in northeastern France. However, there were a couple of other events that reared their collective heads during the planning of this trip; first of all, Anna’s cousin, Robin, was to be married in Vancouver, Canada on September 7 and nobody from Anna’s immediate family were able to attend. Secondly, Anna had been invited to speak at another conference in Paris on September 15 so our adventure would be as follows:

  • We would fly out from Singapore on the evening of Tuesday, September 3, arriving in Paris early the following morning.
  • We would stay three nights in Paris before flying out for Vancouver on the morning of Saturday, September 7 and, due to timezones, landing the very same morning of the wedding.
  • After four nights in Vancouver we would return to Paris on Wednesday, September 11 and immediately make a two-and-a-half-hour train ride to Colmar after we landed on Thursday, September 12, changing trains in Strasbourg along the way.
  • We had two nights in Colmar to see the legit town before making the same train journey back to Paris on Saturday, September 14.
  • After two more nights in Paris we would make the 13-hour flight back to Singapore on Monday, September 16.

We had a hectic and exhausting itinerary planned and this post is about the initial Paris leg of the trip, but the story begins a little before that — My 40th birthday fell five days before we were to depart, on Friday, August 30. Anna had planned several surprises for me, but they didn’t quite go as secretly as she wanted, nonetheless it was a fantastic night all the same. She had initially organised a surprise party at my local pub, Coq & Balls, complete with karaoke and a bar tab for my friends, however, the surprise was kind of ruined when one of the staff asked me if there was anything else I’d like planned for my birthday after Anna had just finished organising everything while I was in the bar’s toilet. A few days later a package arrived in the mail for Anna, but the contents were written on the outside; my favourite films are the original Planet of the Apes series and Anna had found a copy of the Mad magazine from 1973. She also caught on that I knew what was in the package because I left it discreetly on the bench, as opposed to telling her like I usually do when something comes in the mail for her.
None of that mattered, though. When the night came it was so much fun, just hanging out with mates, drinking, singing, and eating an incredible sushi cake that Anna’s friends, Pat and Roshini, made for me, as well as a crêpe cake from Anna’s favourite store, Lady M. Pat and Rosh didn’t want to try their own cake though, because they did a trial run the previous weekend and had been eating sushi all week as a result.
A great night was had by all, take a look at some scenes:

But enough about me, let’s get down to brass tacks here — Our epic journey.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019
There wasn’t much that is particularly relevant to this post that happened on the Tuesday, however, before we left to the airport that evening, Anna had been notified of a promotion she had received. Her official title will soon be Adjunct Associate Professor so that made me feel more than just a little bit proud.
Anyway, we had no problems boarding our flight, popped a sleeping pill each, and when we woke up it was time to prepare for our landing in Paris.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019
It took us forever to get out of the airport as there was only one booth open at immigration, but after about an hour we were through and in a taxi en route to our hotel. I remembered from the last time we visited Paris that it was a very dirty city with dog shit everywhere and countless tramps wandering around, the level of both depending on the area in which you were staying, but I had completely forgotten about the large villages of small tents, some legit one-man camping tents and swags, others a folded piece of cardboard propped up with a stick, in which the more privileged homeless dwell, occupying large parks and grass areas, particularly along the freeway in the spaces between entrances and exits as you get closer to the city from Charles de Gaulle Airport. We eventually made it through the insane traffic and checked into our home for the next few nights, the Hotel-Residence Foch, a name that had required us to ask our taxi driver for the correct pronunciation so as not to offend the staff or other potential drivers. Apparently it’s pronounced “fosch.” Once we had checked in we took the tiny elevator that barely had space for the two of us and our suitcases up to our room, one where there was only space for one suitcase on the counter and one on the floor. The only problem was that my suitcase was the one on the floor and when it was open the door could only open wide enough for someone to slide through sideways, but in a strange twist the bathroom was really large.

Once Anna was ready we left the Foch, her for the conference and me to just have a bit of a wander around. Just like our last visit we were staying near the Arc de Triomphe so I just Googled some flea markets and stores that I thought I might like, inadvertently ending up walking quite a distance to where we had spent an entire day on that previous trip. The ever-unreliable Google Maps led me past the Eiffel Tower, where there were endless stalls selling unofficial merchandise, as well as counterfeit and stolen goods, and then I made my way across the Seine to a dodgy-looking market under the train lines that was beginning to shut down by the time I had arrived. I put my wallet in my front pocket and had a look through the stalls that were still open and the rest of the afternoon was spent browsing through stores and looking at statues in the 15th arrondissement until Anna messaged me to let me know that she was done with the conference and to meet her back at the hotel.
A bit of what I saw on my walk:

Once I was back at the hotel Anna told me about an area where there were a bunch of shops she wanted to look at, as well as some decent restaurants, it all just happened to be in the general direction from where I had just come.
We wandered to where I had been, albeit taking a few different streets, looking at some cool shops, as well as a really bizarre furniture store. Anna loves French bakeries, especially all of the cakes and macaroons, so we also visited some bakeries along the way, despite the fact we would be having dinner soon, and it became clear it wasn’t just the case with the one I bought a coffee at that morning — The cabinets in the bakeries in Paris that contain all of the sweet pastries, tarts, and cakes also have bees flying around inside and absolutely nobody seems to care at all! The cabinets with quiches and cheesy items are fine, but if I were working there I’d be extremely hesitant to put my hand in one to grab a sugary dessert item. Seriously, some of the bakeries we saw over the course of our time in Paris had swarms of bees inside the cabinets! I guess the flies pay more attention to all of the dog shit on the ground instead.

Maybe it was just the bee-ridden cakes, but Anna was starting to get peckish, it was around time for dinner and she had her heart set on soufflé so she managed to find what was rated as one of the better soufflé restaurants in town, however, they were completely booked out that night. We walked around for a bit, but there wasn’t anything else on the block except for a small restaurant that looked a little suspicious with menus in multiple languages and the word ‘pasta’ stencilled largely on the wall among the names of some French dishes. Still, we were hungry and it had a lot of people inside so we took a seat at the only spare table, one which had to be pulled out so Anna could sit. In fact, if she needed to go to the bathroom while eating, at least three other people would need to slide across the bench seat to let her out. It took forever for menus to come and while we were waiting it soon became abundantly clear that everyone in the restaurant was a middle-aged person from the USA. “This is the best foie gras I’ve ever had, it’s even better than that one in San Francisco!” was one pearl of wisdom we heard while sitting there. We were a tad disappointed at the prospect of what was potentially going to be our first dinner on this trip to Paris, one of the food capitals of the world. Generally it isn’t a good sign when a place has the menus out the front written in several different languages with no mistranslations and there isn’t a single local person eating there, plus the service was so slow so I gave Anna a nod and we both stood up to leave. This got the waitress rushing over with the menus, but I had already prepared for this by looking at my phone with a shocked look on my face as we stood so we could simply tell her we had to go, as if it were an emergency.

Once out, Anna took to Google again and found what looked like was going to be a decent restaurant in the 6th arrondissement. When we arrived it turned out to be unbelievably good and as an added bonus it had a whole bunch of different soufflés so we ordered beef tartare, foie gras, a phenomenal local pasta dish with mushrooms and truffles, and an escargot soufflé to top it off. By the time we had finished all of that food, all of the other patrons had left and it looked like the staff wanted to close up so we went to a nearby bar for a drink or two, but we were tired from the flight and Anna had the conference the next day, plus we were super-full, so we didn’t have a late night.
Here’s some shots from that strange furniture store, plus some from dinner:

Thursday, September 5, 2019
Anna was at the conference again in the morning so I waited until she was done and then we checked out another part of town, this time in the 3rd and 10th arrondissements with a lot of vintage and retro stores. Much like the previous day, we spent a fair bit of time looking at shops and avoiding bee attacks in bakeries when Anna got it in her mind to check out Canal Saint-Martin, which is described on Wikipedia as follows:

Today, the canal is a popular destination for Parisians and tourists. Some take cruises on the canal in passenger boats. Others watch the barges and other boats navigate the series of locks and pass under the attractive cast-iron footbridges. There are many popular restaurants and bars along the open part of the canal, which is also popular with students.

That seems cool so we walked down through the Place de la République to the canal, but we definitely didn’t end up at the section Wikipedia was referring to. To be honest, I’ve been considering updating that portion of the page to something along the lines of this:

Today, the canal is a popular destination for the homeless and beginner graffiti artists. Some take the wallets, phones, and other personal items of unwitting visitors. Others watch the drunks and strung out junkies while navigating a winding path through garbage and, of course, canine faeces. There aren’t many shops or restaurants along this particular open part of the canal due to a fear of everything in the building, right down to the final length of copper piping, being stolen in order to fund the perpetrators’ various addictions.

Yeah, that sounds like a more accurate depiction of what we saw along the particular length of the canal that we walked.
After the canal we looked around a few more stores in a different area, grabbed a coffee each, and then went home to clean the grime off ourselves before we had dinner at the house of Anna’s former colleague from New York, Polina Astroz, and her husband. We took an Uber to meet up with her and instantly remembered exactly how bad Parisian traffic is, especially at peak times. The main roads have many roundabouts with at least six other roads consisting of about the same amount of lanes leading into each roundabout and thousands of drivers throwing caution to the wind, and when it comes to traffic lights, nobody tends to care either, both situations resulting in a massive gridlock. Our driver told us about how the key to driving in Paris is stubbornness, as it is the only way you will get anywhere, you’ll just get stuck or cut off if you obey the rules or give way to other drivers, and when two truly stubborn drivers won’t budge, it usually results in a fight on the side of the road. Just as he finished talking we passed a fistfight between two drivers who both refused to budge. It took us almost an hour to get to where we needed to be, making us extremely late, and it would’ve been almost twice as fast if we had’ve walked, but we finally made it. Prior to dinner we had drinks with Polina and one of her friends at an awesome rooftop bar near her place until Polina assumed her husband had almost finished preparing dinner. When we arrived at their beautiful apartment we spent a few hours that night chatting, mainly reminiscing about old times in New York over home-cooked duck confit with apricots, a traditional dish from Toulouse, the area of France they are both originally from, and a few more drinks.
It was quite late when we left and some of Anna’s Singaporean colleagues were meeting up in a bar that night, but that was all over by the time we were done. I didn’t take any photos around the canal for fear of my phone being stolen, but here are some others that I got that day:

Friday, September 6, 2019
We did most of the tourist attractions on our first trip to Paris; we walked down Avenue des Champs-Élysées, saw the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, visited Notre Dame, and saw the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. However, there was one attraction I had always been fascinated with and wanted desperately to see — The Catacombs:

The Catacombs of Paris are underground ossuaries in Paris, France, which hold the remains of more than six million people in a small part of a tunnel network built to consolidate Paris’ ancient stone quarries. Extending south from the Barrière d’Enfer (“Gate of Hell”) former city gate, this ossuary was created as part of the effort to eliminate the city’s overflowing cemeteries. Preparation work began not long after a 1774 series of gruesome Saint Innocents-cemetery-quarter basement wall collapses added a sense of urgency to the cemetery-eliminating measure, and from 1786, nightly processions of covered wagons transferred remains from most of Paris’ cemeteries to a mine shaft opened near the Rue de la Tombe-Issoire.

The ossuary remained largely forgotten until it became a novelty-place for concerts and other private events in the early 19th century; after further renovations and the construction of accesses around Place Denfert-Rochereau, it was open to public visitation from 1874.

The catacombs in their first years were a disorganized bone repository, but Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, director of the Paris Mine Inspection Service from 1810, had renovations done that would transform the underground caverns into a visitable mausoleum. In addition to directing the stacking of skulls and femurs into the patterns seen in the catacombs today, he used the cemetery decorations he could find (formerly stored on the Tombe-Issoire property, many had disappeared after the 1789 Revolution) to complement the walls of bones. Also created was a room dedicated to the display of the various minerals found under Paris, and another showing various skeletal deformities found during the catacombs’ creation and renovation. He also added monumental tablets and archways bearing ominous warning inscriptions, and also added stone tablets bearing descriptions or other comments about the nature of the ossuary, and to ensure the safety of eventual visitors, it was walled from the rest of the Paris’s Left Bank already-extensive underground tunnel network.

Although the catacombs offered space to bury the dead, they presented disadvantages to building structures; because the catacombs are directly under the Paris streets, large foundations cannot be built and cave-ins have destroyed buildings. For this reason, there are few tall buildings in this area.

Anna booked an audio tour of the catacombs for us and after we caught the train to that area and walked to the entrance, we were glad that we already had tickets. The line for tickets was around the block, and we even had to wait for about 15 minutes to enter, because according to the official catacombs visitor’s website, despite being 1.5km (1 mile) long, the number of simultaneous visitors is limited to 200 so those people in line for tickets could be there for hours!
Once inside we walked down the 131-step spiral staircase to the tunnel network and soon we were in the winding corridor of human bones. One thing that became abundantly clear is that some people can be complete dicks when visiting historic sites. An extreme case you may remember was when a fifteen-year-old Chinese school student was identified back in 2013 as he who had scratched his name into a 3,500-year-old Egyptian artwork in the Temple of Luxor. Although the defacing of the catacombs may not be quite as severe as that, it is extremely frustrating to enter and see that tags have been sprayed and stickers stuck allover the place, some even on actual skulls! However, this soon ceases and we spent over an hour walking through a mile of winding passages consisting of exquisitely arranged human remains, all the while learning how it came to be that way.
Take a quick tour of this macabre, yet beautiful construction for yourself via just a handful of the pictures we took during our adventure underground (all translations via Google Translate):

A little bit of trivia: Scenes from Will Smith’s upcoming film, Gemini Man, appear to have been filmed in the catacombs, although it was more than likely just a set.

Anyway, after the catacombs we had dinner with some of Anna’s colleagues and then went out until the wee hours of the morning to avoid sleeping too much; we had to catch an early flight in a few hours that, due to timezones, would arrive at almost the exact same time in Vancouver, and then we would need to rush to a wedding so we wanted to sleep as much as we could on the plane. But that story is the basis of my next post so stay tuned for Part 2!

Oh, and I just wanted to say that while we were touring the catacombs, I couldn’t help but smile as I thought of this classic Michiel Sweerts piece, Self-Portrait with Skull, circa 1660:

IMG_3831 2

It was tempting… (Image source)

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