Hi - it's Andrew this time...
So as most of you have read, our time in France is coming to an end. Due to many factors - the majority of which deal with the continuing global economic crisis - our operations in Europe have become much smaller. Part of this transition includes me keeping my current role but re-locating to our office in Lake Forest IL. The boxes are packed, a house is rented, and we'll be in Illinois by the first day of school, Jan 1st.
What a better way to celebrate the end of a stint in France than by spending a day in Paris? Because a lot of walking was planned, along with an expectation of many things to touch/break and big crowds, I decided that Grace and Mia would be better off in Caen. Ella and I wanted to leave Caen on the 7am train, have a big adventure that day, and grab the 7pm train home.
This brings me to the first revelation of life in France: they love to strike! Kate and I have mentioned this before - but it's really worth noting. Yes, there are some strikes in the US. I'm sure you've seen picketing in front of the grocery store, read about auto workers/refs/air traffic controllers, or maybe even thought about striking yourself. The big difference between the US and France is that the strikes in the US rarely have any effect on our daily lives at all. The opposite is true in France. For example, on Saturday and Sunday this weekend, the trains were on strike. Nope, they didn't run - at least not my line. This isn't the end of the world when you can drive a car - but it is when it's two weeks before Christmas and everyone wants to go to Paris, all who will now travel by car. Last week, the Louvre was on strike - nope, it wasn't open. The most famous museum in the world was closed. This past summer, the Eiffel tower was on strike (because the security guards had to wear gray pants and stand a lot on their shifts - I swear, you can google it). I've been in the middle of tram strikes (my friend missed a flight at CDG airport because he was stuck on a striking tram in Caen), farmer strikes, and others all over France in this past year.
So - on to the story - Ella and I decided to drive and we were able to get out of the house around 7am. We parked no too far from the Louvre (our first stop) and I used a great idea Kate thought up for parking in unfamiliar French cities - take a picture of your street corner so you can find your car at the end of the day. A small revelation number two: the street signs in France couldn't me more difficult to see or find. Instead of big green and white street names hanging from the stop lights or light posts in the middle of each intersection, the French decided it would be a good idea to put tiny blue and white signs on random buildings - sometimes set 40' away from the street. Yes, these signs may look nice, but it doesn't help when getting around.
Ella and I arrived to the Louvre around 10am, waited 45 minutes to buy a ticket, and were in front of the Mona Lisa by 11am. This was probably the only painting that she has ever heard of, the only one she could recognize, and because of it's fame I decided it would be a good place to head first. After arriving home that night, Ella commented, "It sure was funny seeing a thousand people crowded around that tiny little painting, and nobody crowding around anything else!". And yes, she's right - the Mona Lisa is a tiny bit over-rated and it's a little pathetic that in such a gigantic museum it's the #1 thing people want to see - but, Ella is only 6 and at least this visit will have a memory that should stick. Boredom set in pretty quickly after seeing the painting so we meandered our way back to have a quick lunch before leaving.
We left the Louvre and headed through the Jardin des Tuileries towards a big Ferris wheel at the base of Ave des Champs-Elysees. The Jardin resembles Grant Park in Chicago - although I think this one came first... Luckily, because of the time of day, there was no line at the wheel and we were able to get right on. It's a nice pleasant ride, great for kids/tourists (us), and gave some good views of the city.
After the ride, we headed to a big Marche' de Noel - basically a bunch of wooden huts built so people can sell Christmas stuff before the holidays. It seems like most towns have them in one way or another and as can be expected the one in Paris was huge. Lots and lots of stuff - none of which we bought because of our upcoming plane trip on Saturday (yes, we have enough "stuff" to carry already). Ella and I were actually both pretty cold even though we had our winter stuff on. So I looked around for something inside that we could do. To our surprise there was a big ice sculpture showroom set up inside this big building - so, I bought two tickets and we headed in. Unfortunately for us, the big building was a blast freezer and it was probably minus twenty inside. Not my most brilliant idea for finding a place to warm up. 20 Euros and 5 minutes later (literally, we were out in 5 min - maybe even 3) I decided to give her my sweatshirt. This bundled up nicely under her jacket, was kept from falling over her hands by her gloves, and hung down to her knees for perfect warmth. I wasn't even that freezing just wearing a t-shirt (oh, and I did have my puffy winter jacket too).
We walked through the Christmas booths, rode a mini roller-coaster, and headed off in the direction of the Arch de Triumph. Walking along the Champs-Elysees is pretty much like walking on Michigan Ave in Chicago, 5th Ave in NY, and other big avenues in big cities - except, it's in Paris. It's pretty cool walking hand in hand with your daughter in Paris a few weeks before Christmas and seeing all that you can see. Remember, we spent the past two years in some pretty remote towns - Crested Butte CO and Caen FR - so it's been a while since we've done the big city sightseeing thing. We stopped in the Disney store to warm up for a while and look around - it's nobody's surprise that they have the same things here as they do on Old Orchard (I'm beginning to figure out the Disney business model). Below is a picture of a new Renault car that I hope they start selling...
The Arch de Triumph is right at the highest point of the Champs-Elysees and it's in the middle of the biggest round-a-bout that you've ever seen. We were not able to go inside and climb to the top because the line to buy tickets was longer than the line to buy tickets for Def Leopard in 1982. My third revelation: Paris needs to find a better way to sell tourists tickets. The lines for the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Arch de Triumph, Metro, RER, and other major attractions are so long you literally can't even believe it. For example, we had to wait 45 minutes to buy tickets at the Louvre - there were two banks of auto ticket machines - each bank only had five machines. Once you get your ticket, you can walk right into the place. Someone really needs to think of a way to add about forty more machines to get the lines moving along. Yes, you can buy online in advance - but they have to mail you the tickets and it takes a week - not exactly conducive to night before purchases. The same is true for the other places - gigantic wait to buy a ticket and then you can walk right in.
The last big stop of the night was a trip along the Seine river that winds through Paris. We opted for the Metro to take us towards the river, as it would have been quite a long walk, and ended up back where we started by the Louvre. There is a Batobus stop right by the museum and we waited for it to come to our stop. The boat makes a round trip run between the Louvre, up towards the Eiffel Tower, all the way back down to Notre Dame, and back again. For some crazy reason I thought the round trip was only 30 minutes - turns out it's more like an hour and 45 min. The warmth, quite humming of the engine, and a seat after so much walking was pushing sleep on me so fast I could barely keep my eyes open. I fought and fought and was able to stay awake, easily allowing Ella to have a snooze. It's probably not cool for a parent to take a nap on their kid's lap - but vice versa is OK.
After the ride we found a small bistro to have some dinner. Amazingly, it was the same place I had coffee and a croissant in September 2008 while visiting here before accepting the job in Caen. I had an amazing roasted chicken and fries - Ella had a huge double hot-dog with baked cheese on top, hot chocolate, and fries. My last revelation: the food really is amazing. Some stuff is healthy, some not so much, but all of it is really great. The French appear to wear this on their sleeves with restaurants, store front sandwich places, stands selling crepes, candy booths etc all over the place in every town. It is impossible to come to France and go hungry. I still remember my first big lunch while here - bread, water, wine, with baked ham, cheese, mushroom, and artichoke plate to start; platter of beef, green beans, fries, salad, and wine in the middle; cafe' gourmond (espresso coffee with three mini desserts [ice cream, creme brulee, macaroon]) for dessert. I really thought people ate like this every day. We've had amazing beef, chicken, fish, pork, pasta, bread, sandwiches - literally all kids of amazing things - and we've eaten it in really nice restaurants, casual standard lunch places, stands, gas stations, fairs - anyplace there are people you can find amazing food.
Time for the trip home - we immediately felt the pain from the holiday weekend combined with the train strike. It took an hour and a half to get from the Louvre to the Arch de Triumph - about 2 KM. I had fun actually driving in the crush of cars and people - the lights were amazing - and Ella enjoyed relaxing and watching TV on my iPhone. We made it home just before 10.30 that night - both of us settling down for a long winter's nap.
This coming week will be spent tying up lose ends (packing, mailing, bills, sales etc). The trip home begins on Friday with a stay at CDG airport with our flight on Saturday. Ella, Grace, and Mia have their last week of school before Christmas break - we'll all be back stateside before we know it.
If you happen to live in Chicago, we'll see you soon; if you live in France, we'll be back before you know it; and if you're in Colorado - see you next week! Take care - Merry Christmas to all.