January 18, 2012

From Paris with Love

We flew out of Helsinki in the early morning of January 5th. Our destination was Paris, where we intended to spend several days celebrating Christina's 30th birthday with at least a bit of decadence in a journey that has otherwise been characterized by sticking to a tight, frugal budget.

The city was magical, and all of the supposed snootiness that one hears of Parisians (especially towards Americans) never became apparent. Indeed, after the emotionally distant, typically indifferent and occasionally frosty social reception we became used to in Northern Europe and the Baltic area, Parisians seemed downright charming. We stumbled through our broken French, which surely helped, but the place was bound to leave a positive mark. We dove into all the city had to offer, covering an immense amount of ground over three days with a combination of subway mastery and many self-guided tours taken on foot. The sights and history of Paris were fascinating and varied, and the city is brimming with places to explore, art to appreciate, and simple pleasures to be had. Since the trip brought many experiences and one big change to the trip, we decided to share Paris from separate viewpoints and with different entries.

Dave's Paris
I've known that Christina is something special for quite a long time. Hell, it was I who tracked her down at that first teaching conference way back in New Orleans three years ago. I engaged her in conversation after leaving some workshop ("The Visual Politics of Race," I believe.... something like that), followed her out into the French Quarter alone to go dancing with her and her teacher friends, and then charmed my way into our first date (which she will to this day tell you was a meeting she only intended to be brief and dismissive). She has made some of the biggest leaps herself, moving to Miami being one, so her foresight deserves credit as well, but my point is that I knew she was something to hold on to from the very beginning. And from the beginning of this trip I had plans to propose, especially after my dearest grandmother convinced me to spend my (at the time miniscule) ring-savings on something else and to accept the engagement ring my grandfather had once given to her, keeping it in the family. We visited Nana in her Tampa community on the way out of Florida, and she pulled me into her carpeted bedroom at one point when Christina was showering. She told me she sensed something about Christina and asked me if I thought she was the one. "Absolutely Nana, yes." She tucked the ring box into my hand, told me the story of how my grandfather gave it to her, and things were set in motion.

We have lived for this entire trip out of our two frame backpacks. Every zipper and every compartment is filled with some item deemed essential to our journey, and we've done well to keep things light (something that is aided by our policy of leaving one or more objects behind at every stop we make). Hiding something in these circumstances, however, is not easy. On many occasions Christina would be rooting around in our bags, looking for some thing or another and I would anxiously ask at her from across the room "what are you doing? What are you looking for? Tell me, I'll get it." She apparently thought nothing of it and chalked it up to me being militant about my packing (which I am), but for me I was sure that my cover was blown every time she went looking for a headlamp, her travel yoga mat, whatever.

The last day was the worst. Leaving Helsinki on some unknown airline, I transferred the ring out of our backpacks (which we checked as luggage) and tucked it into the small carry-on pouch that we kept with us as essential in case anything happened to our bags that we sent away on that airline conveyor belt before boarding, such an modern type of faith. Our first night was our intended visit to the Eiffel Tower, my target location, and I then had to keep the ring tucked in my jacket pocket. The night was blustery and cold, and every time she saddled up next to me to walk arm-in-arm or to hug in the waiting line for Eiffel Tower tickets I tried to discreetly shift her arms or spin her around into some awkward form of embrace so she wouldn't brush up against what was so obviously a boxy lump protruding out from my breast pocket. I was sure she'd felt it at least several times and was being a good sport, waiting for me as our walk around the upper tower progressed and wondering what was taking me so long. I had a whole thing planned out, a speech about our growth and our trials and our adventures together and how I wanted many more, but to be honest I can't remember what came out as the wind whipped about - howled - and the lights of nighttime Paris twinkled around us. I do remember that I abruptly dropped down and begged her to marry me, and she said yes. The city is a special place and brought us to a new place in our relationship. And now Christina can do the packing from here on out without me making a peep.

The rest of the city was a joy. We celebrated her birthday the next day, taking a fantastic walking tour through the Latin Quarter of the city and seeing several non-descript locations of great literary significance, from George Orwell's flat during his time as a dishwasher, to Hemmingways early apartments, and on to the cafe's frequented by Sartre and de Beauvoir. We then went for a cocktail at Harry's New York bar, a storied place that is said to have created the first Bloody Mary (which we tried, and it was delicious, at least one of the best three I've ever). We ended with a fantastic birthday dinner at a tucked-away restaurant called L' Pre Verre, which served fantastic and rich French cuisine.

Over the next few days we saw some of the most incredible sights of the trip. We fought through a wall of tourists for just a few serene moments to look at the Mona Lisa within the massive Louvre Museum. We were giddy with excitement at the Pantheon, a hulking monument that houses France's most prized historical figures; Christina had her moment with Victor Hugo, I had mine with Marie Curie. We stared in awe at some of the most impressive architecture (in the form of churches, always churches) that we've ever seen at Notre Dame and St. Sulpice. And we even made decapitation jokes (perhaps in poor taste) at the death site of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI.

All in all, Paris will be a highlight of the trip and a highlight for life. I encourage anyone to go there, especially with a loved one.

Christina's Paris: 

After a rather long night in the airport and two flights, we finally made it to Paris! As we anxiously awaited our bags at baggage claim, we made our plans for the afternoon. I was excited to be in the city and knew our time was limited, but I was certainly exhausted. David seemed to be all too eager to drop our bags off at the hotel and head out to see the sights. Admittedly, I wanted to take advantage of all Paris had to offer, but in those moments as we waited for our bags, I was exhausted and the idea of a nap began to sound more and more inviting. Nonetheless, we whipped out our guide book, given to us by Indrek (Liisa's cousin) and planned our subway route to our hotel.  Upon arriving at our small and in need of some repair hotel room, we showered and ventured out into the city. Although it had been raining when we first arrived, the sun had since peered through and we reveled in the sunlight - something we had been missing in Estonia. We grabbed a quick bite to eat and then made our way to the Eiffel Tower, our first landmark. 

It has certainly been a blessing to travel at a time when tourism is fairly low. In general, we've had fairly easy entry into the famous sights across Europe, and while Paris was no different, there were certainly more tourists and longer lines than we would have expected for January. Nonetheless, we waited our turn, hugging each other for warmth marveling at the impressive structure above us. Eventually we purchased our tickets, boarded the elevator (keeping an eye out for pickpockets as the signs encouraged) and made our way to the second level of the tower.  Due to intense wind, tourists were not allowed to the upper levels of the tower.  Standing on the second level of the Eiffel it was clear why.  The wind howled about us as we looked over Paris, pointing out some the recognizable landmarks to each other. Despite my exhaustion I was so glad we'd made the effort. Before us was the city we'd spend the next few days exploring. The city I had only read about and seen in movies.

At some point, we found a tucked away corner with few tourists and ventured as close to the edge as the wind and our hearts would allow.  The wind howled about us and David began reflecting on our lives, our relationship, our future. In general, he's a reflective guy, but I chalked this particular moment up to the mystique and romance of this great city. I strained to hear him above the noise of the wind, affirming his thoughts about our year thus far and the next steps we had been discussing as of late. Suddenly, he whipped me around, pulled me from the edge and drew me closer to a beam, blocking some of the wind. To my utter surprise, he bent down on one knee and asked me to marry him. Tears welled up in my eyes and the words I wanted to say caught in my throat and all I could say, over and over again was "yes, yes, yes." With the wind whipping about us, and the howling of it surrounding us, I crouched down closer to David, and continued to utter the only word I could form "yes, yes, yes."  
Afterwards, I could in no way shake the ear to ear smile from my face and we walked arm and arm around the tower once more and then made our way back down to street level to further explore the city. 

I was truly surprised by the proposal. At no moment had I even sensed, what he later confessed, was his awkward shifting of my hands and body away from the ring in his pocket. Up until then I had merely thought David was an intense packer, always packing the bags himself, anxious that I would disturb the neat and ordered system and eager to find my yoga mat or make up kit for me. In fact, when he almost jumped across the conveyer belt that morning to keep a security guard from opening our carry-on in our view, I thought he had hidden some small birthday trinket purchased in Estonia.  I was shocked to find out he had been hiding an engagement ring in our bags the entire time. Since announcing our engagement, I've gotten quite a few requests for pictures and descriptions of the ring. Let me say this... I feel honored to be able to wear Nana's (David's grandmother) ring.  I've been told when she was given the ring, the three bands represented the past, present and future of her relationship with her husband. My past with David has been storied - from our chance meeting, to our immediate falling for each other, my epic move to Miami and our decision to take off this year.  Our present is glorious and as we travel together and explore these new countries, cities and ways of living we've only grown closer and more in love. I'm looking forward to the future we've discussed and the one we can't even begin to imagine. I feel incredibly lucky to have found (or been found, according to him) by such a wonderful man. 

Of course, Paris will always have a special place in our hearts. We spent the rest of our trip taking self guided walking tours, eating delicious food and counting the number of Parisians we saw carrying a baguette.  Aside from David's romantic and magical proposal, I will always remember eating quiche in the park, meeting an American couple at a creperie, combing the shelves of a used English language bookstore, visiting to the tomb of my favorite author, Victor Hugo, walking arm and arm along the Siene, and visiting the former homes and haunts of some of my favorite writers. All in all this was a birthday better than any I could have dreamed of. A perfect Parisian stay. 

The Eiffel Tower from below. Dave is sweating at this point.

Focault's Pendulum (modeling the rotation of the Earth) in the center of the Pantheon. A science teacher's dream.

Voltaire's tomb in the lower crypt level of the Pantheon. 

Marie and Pierre Curie. Dave has told many a science class about these two, and now look at him. They're in there!!

A highlight in Christina's literary life, by Victor Hugo's tomb. 

The St. Sulpice Church. It annoyed us that the guide book included this in the "Literary Loop" walking tour only because it was the setting of a few scenes in Dan Brown's the Davinci Code, and we almost skipped the place for that reason. When we walked by it however, we were awestruck and had to venture inside. 

Harry's New York Bar and it's legendary Bloody Mary. We studied the bartender intently as he mixed and here's what we learned: ice halfway up the glass, two salt shakers shaken for several seconds over the ice, a couple dashes of tabasco, a few healthier dashes more of worchestershire sauce, an equal amount of lemon juice, vodka up to about two inches from the top of the glass, topped off with tomato juice. Simple, delicious, and high-octane.

The Church of Mary Magdalene, an impressive structure.

Christina enjoying one of the many crepes of the trip. They were all very delicious, and this version (with sugar, butter and lemon) was her favorite. The Louvre Art Museum in the background.

There she is, the Mona Lisa. Christina is appropriately unimpressed by the flocking, picture-snapping tourists. Just look at the damn thing!

An entry into our photo-series "Why Tourists Are Crazy." One out of every ten seemed to actually possess the reverence that such a work of art would seem to demand. The other nine were either a) snapping pictures of the painting constantly, b) looking away from the painting and snapping a picture back at themselves with the painting in the background, or c) pickpockets.

The Cathedral of Notre Dame at night. A stunning piece of gothic architecture.

Paris lights in the background of our last night.

Where Louis XVI was beheaded during the French Revolution. Dave, simulating.

Hemingway and Hadley's first Paris apartment. In the romance of walking the streets of the Latin Quarter we toyed with the idea of staying in Paris, finding our own small apartment and trying our hand at the artists' life. We soon came to realize, times are not what they once were. In a bookstore we found some of Hemingway's accounts of his life in Paris, where he and Hadley were able to live on just $30 a month. How times have changed. We will be coming home. :-) 

Our hotel was just off this busy market street. Every morning the streets were filled with fruit sellers, the smell of baked goods and vendors of delicious, rotisserie chicken. 

Our attempts at capturing gay Paris in a pose...

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