What you are going to read is overdue. My first trip to Europe, to be exact, to Paris and London, happened a month ago. Yes, I spent the American traditional holiday Thanksgiving in Europe. I was lucky to stay in Paris with my extended family who also prepared Thanksgiving feast one day earlier than the actual holiday. That was because on Thanksgiving Day I had to hit the road for London by EuroStar.
When in Paris, how can you skip its cuisine? Just comment on its taste, color, texture, aroma and the overall presentation, I’m already on cloud nine. I was well fed even just en route to Paris up in the air. My first experience with Air France didn’t disappoint me. I’d say Air France is another airline that left an impressive dent in my pea brain next to Singapore Airline. The crew kept my mouth busy in my seven hours flight by offering delicacies from cashews and chocolate cakes to chicken pasta and Haagen Dazs ice cream, not to mention filling up my cup with peach juice, water, coffee, tea and a sample bottle of white wine. The in-flight entertainment was not bad either. I watched a couple of movies back to back despite my bloodshot eyes. (You see I got up quite early to work and I caught the flight on the same day after work.)
Upon arrival, our host prepared French lunch with fresh produce bought right from the outdoor Saturday farmers’ market. By the way, I love shopping at the farmers’ market in Paris. If only there was one such market near Centreville. The French culinary preparation is too famous to reiterate. Our hosts Stephane and Jenny offered us juicy duck, rice salad, roasted chicken legs, baked whole fish, pork stew and daily bread. 🙂 Again, my mouth was busy with joy and contentment. I conjured up a weird thought–Is eating the key of mastering the tough French pronunciation? I’ve been told I need flexible jaw muscles to speak like a native French speaker. The reason that I find it so hard to say the French words with letter “R” is my tongue doesn’t move quick enough. Perhaps I should keep eating more French cuisine to strengthen my jaw muscles.
My mom used to say you may complain about hunger but if you are full, never complain about it. I didn’t complain at all even though I had a seemingly always full belly while I was in Paris. Almost every morning I began my day with coffee and croissants. I learned from my lesson. In Paris, if you don’t make it clear that you want café au lait when you order coffee, you’re guaranteed to be given the tiny cup of bitter espresso. In my only one visit at a McDonald’s in Paris, the waiter even asked me with hand gesture, “Do you want your coffee espresso or the large one with milk?” Good catch! He must have known “a coffee” means something else for foreigners like me.
My last comment on French food is on my first trip to Paris, I realized my dream to taste the snails, the duck and the croissants. They more than hit the spot. The taste just lingered in my mouth for quite some time. This compliment doesn’t apply to the croissants, though. Believe it or not, the best croissants I ever had was in an inn run by French Cajuns in New Orleans. Crispy, big and warm. . . until today I’m still mouth-watering for it.
As for the itinerary, I’ve covered most of the ground in Paris and London that a first-time visitor would and should. In fact, on this trip to Paris, I even had a chance to experience activities which ordinary Parisians do. Attending a Sunday mass in the French language, for instance. In Paris, I did visit quite a few churches, from Notre Dame to La Sainte-Chapelle, from Montmatre Sacré-Cœur basilica to the Catholic church around the corner near my host’s family. In London, I visited the Westminster Abby and the chapel inside the Tower of London. My soul and mind must have been cleansed after paying visits to all these churches, large or small, old or new, world-famous or unknown. I felt in love instantly with the Gothic architectural style of Notre Dame and Westminster Abby. I felt mournful when hearing the solemn music from the church pipe organs. I recalled the church visits in Macau, saying prayers for my dying mother. The ample space in the high-ceiling church calmed the frightened and stimulated a dialog with one’s true self. Or in a worshiper’s eye, a dialog with his/her god.
Some great places are worthy of multiple visits. On this trip, I visited the Louvre twice–the first time was with the family touring the highlights inside the palace; the second time was on the following day roaming the square where stand three glass pyramids in different sizes. I also visited the British Museum twice–the first time was seeing the special exhibition of China’s Ming Dynasty; the second time was seeing a Chinese porcelain collection by Sir Percival David at Room 95. Each visit to both museums was as short as lightening–probably a bit exaggerated–but precious and memorable. If time allows, I’ll certainly devote the major chunk of my travel time at the museums.
But Paris is a museum by itself. No matter when you are in a gallery, on the streets, by the Seine or under the Eiffel Tower, there is history about the place you are standing. What makes the first visit so precious is that the contrasts between the new and the old, the known and the unknown, the familiar and the unfamiliar. The contrasts accompanied me throughout the trip.
For instance, I’ve heard so much about the Eiffel Tower. I’ve even been to a miniature Eiffel Tower at a theme park in China. The basic shape of a tower was embedded in my mind. I know it is made of steel. I know it is wide at the base and narrow up in the body. I know it has a steeple top. But I had never realized the tower is so big and striking that when I stood in front of it I was so petite! I had never seen the ironwork on the tower so complex until I was literally walking down the tower step by step from the first level to the ground level. All the crisscrosses, angles, juxtaposition, regular or irregular shapes, they just riveted me. Today we have computers to help configuration and design, back then architects had to rely on their detailed drawings to turn the iconic structures like the Eiffel Tower into reality. There’re too many examples like this in Paris. I marveled at the luxurious ceilings of the Lourve, of the Palace of Versailles. I was stunned by the architectural complication of Notre Dame, both interior and exterior.
The Eiffel Tower is so big. If you are in the 16th arrondissement in Paris, you won’t miss the giant tower standing across the Seine in the opposite neighborhood. Suffering from jet lag, I had a surge of adrenaline when our shuttle van from the airport passed by this colossal icon of Paris. At that moment, it was the living proof of the old saying–to see is to believe. The contrast of the low rise buildings around the Eiffel Tower is pronounced. On a cloudy day, I hiked up to the top of the tower and saw only clouds. I wasn’t disappointed at all. On the contrary, I must have been on cloud nine, wasn’t I? As I walked in the clouds, everything was so celestial and light. I could only make out the snow-white top of the vehicles 276 meters (906 ft) down beneath my feet. My world was completely enveloped in milky clouds. The bird’s-eye-view of Paris from the Eiffel Tower reminded me a lot of the cityscape of Quebec City from the Observatoire de la Capitale. The only difference was the seasonal distinction: I was in Quebec City in deep winter but was in Paris in deep autumn. On the second level of the tower, I saw Paris in patchy autumnal colors–yellow, gold, orange, green, white, red beneath a veil of haze.
Paris indeed is temperamental. I learned that at Luxembourg Gardens, on the cruise along the Seine, at the bus stop near the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, and not to mention from the bedroom window at our host’s apartment. Every evening, I could appreciate the 5-minute sparkling light show that falls on the hour of the Eiffel Tower. The reflection in the pond at Luxembourg Gardens changed its face as the clouds traveled above it. Notre Dame was radiant in gold as the autumn sun was descending at three pm. The lawn looked greener under the overcast sky. In one minute the tip of the Eiffel Tower was disguised in the clouds; in the following minute when the sky opened, the full contour of the tower revealed again its sensual appeal.
So much for Paris. I know the city is overly written. However, no one is tired of writing and reading about it. A three-hour train ride took me to the other side of the English Channel. Like I always exclaim in the U.S. that I can’t believe I am in America. When I arrived in London, I also exclaimed silently: I can’t believe I am in London! I know little about London as a city. But I’m certainly fascinated by the British literature and accents. As a matter of fact, in my early days of learning English I did once speak British English and write it in British spellings. Not surprising that my attempt of speaking like a Briton when I was in London was unceasing. I knew no one would laugh (lah-f) at me if I got (gau-t) a chance (chahn-ss) to show off my faux Britishness. Kudo to my bravery!
If you ask me about the highlights of my whirlwind three-day tour in London, there’re actually countless. To name a few delectable moments: Scuffling my lead feet at St Pancras station upon arrival, I was warmly welcome by a gigantic statue of a hugging couple. The bronze man and the bronze woman were looking at each other so deeply as if that very moment was frozen and all sounds around them were silenced. For the people who arrive, the statue signifies reunion. But for the people who depart, it may connote the imminent separation. Later I learned the statue’s name is The Meeting Place by Paul Day.
When in London, how could a first-time traveler not mention about Big Ben, the clock tower of the British Parliament. Londoners must be fascinated by clocks as I could find time easily outside old buildings. But this very clock as part of the British Parliament is much more glamorous than its other antique clock siblings. I’ve taken dozens of photos of Big Ben at different time of the day, with me or without me in the photos. I’ve even had a chance (chahn-ss) to hear its sound when it struck right on the hour. Big Ben is far from being stupid despite its literal translation in Chinese as the “big stupid clock”.
The tour of Westminster Abby drew me inches closer to the Greats of centuries, from the British kings and queens to the literary giants like Chaucer and Hardy. Standing in front of the tile of my beloved Charles Dickens, I wept a little, prayed a little and retrospected a great deal about the influence of his works on me. The impact will need another entry to “expound” as the Britons say. I said to myself quietly: I cannot believe I am here in London. It’s even beyond my expectation that I am visiting Dickens’ grave.
Riding on the London Eye, I saw Big Ben from a different perspective. The cityscape of London is a jumble of new and old. Unlike Paris where buildings are consistent in style despite their founding ages, arousing a sense of nostalgia, you’ll found St. Paul Cathedral is surrounded with modern buildings in London. Skyscrapers shoot up among the Victorian buildings. Among my hundreds of snapshots, I had a good one of this contrast–the Tower of London stood in front of the Shard–the second tallest buildings in the U.K.. Reflected from the bright sunlight, the former was eclipsed by the glaring glass building in the backdrop.
The sunset in winter came too early in London. My two-time visits at the British Museum happened just when the night was descending. Well, I should have a good understanding about the premise of the latest movie “Night at the Museum” which is set in the British Museum. The daylight coming through the ceiling around the large rotunda at the museum varies as the day moves on. Thanks to the museum’s Friday extended hours, I could see a temporary exhibition at night! Of course I could have stayed at the British Museum for days if time allowed. The British Museum offers as much to see as the Lourve.
Last but not least, the Tower of London has haunted me in a good sense since my visit. Again, restrained by time I didn’t follow the guide for a thorough guided tour. But that might be advantage as I could use my immagination and knowlege to comprehend this historic site and roam at my own pace. I came across rare good weather on that day with golden afternoon sunlight. Everything on the site was dressed in gold, reflecting its aged complexion. With the help of such superb nature light, it was the best time to photograph. So I did, shooting images like crazy. The Tower Bridge was breathtaking against the deep blue sky and under the winter sun.
I left London with a unfinished business as AZ lost his card case which contains credit cards and identification on the Tube on the last evening in London. He is lucky, though. Among the two lost and found incidents that I was also in the picture, the outcome tends to be optimistic, leaning toward the FOUND rather than the LOST. After we reached the States, London public transportation office contacted AZ and the card case is scheduled to be mailed back to his hand in the new year.
Thank you for your patience if you have read this far. I can’t say if this trip is Paris and London did me or I did both of them. But I have no shame to say that I am both Anglophile and Francophile. Look, I’m picking up the self-taught French lessons again and I’m so drawn by the British history and French literature. All changes happen after this one-of-a-kind first trip to both cities. Bonjour, mon ami!!!