30 Before 30

I love making lists. Sometimes I make lists of the most mundane daily activities just so I can cross them off. It gives me a sense of accomplishment.

After my post-trip France funk, I made seasonal leap lists that have forced me to experience and appreciate the fun and beauty surrounding me in small town Ohio. With that in mind and recently inspired by the book The Happiness of Pursuit by Chris Guillebeau, which focuses on the art of creating and completing life quests (Chris’ quest was to visit every country in the world before his 35th birthday), I’ve decided to make my own sort of quest list. As my 29th year begins today, I find it appropriate to give myself 30 mini quests to complete before my 30th birthday on October 10th next year.

I broke the list into four categories: travel, experience, grow, and serve. I expect every item on my 30 Before 30 list to help me grow in some way, but those that focused primarily on pushing my comfort zone and learning were compiled under Grow. Travel is self explanatory, and it was impossible for me to compile a list that didn’t include traveling. Experience includes items that I feel are essential for me to experience at some point in my life – so why not before 30?? And Serve is an important category. It is short, but it is open ended, as one community service project usually leads to future opportunities.

 

TRAVEL

1. Visit 30 states before 30. I’ve been to 28 so far, 2 more to go this year.

2. Visit ground zero. I saw the towers up close (and from afar) in March of 2001, just 6 months before the 9/11 tragedy. I haven’t been back to the site since but think it’s an important trip to make.

3. Traverse 3 famous bridges. **Bonus points if each bridge is crossed by different travel method. I don’t love heights so this is almost a Grow item too!

4. Watch a sunrise at the beach

5. Watch a sunset at the beach (I understand that one must be on opposite sides of the coasts for this feat, don’t worry, I’m prepared.)

6. Visit 3 waterfalls. Nobody ever said not to chase waterfalls. Oh, wait…

7. Travel to a new continent. If I want to see 6 in my lifetime, better start venturing beyond Europe.

 

EXPERIENCE

8. Go fishing with my dad. I’ve been saying I wanted to do this for the past 5 years, time to actually get it done.

9. Watch a baseball game in a different MLB ball park. If my ultimate goal is to see a game in all 30, better get on it since I’m only at 4 so far.

10. Take a hot air balloon ride.

11. Go zip-lining.

12. Go to a midnight premiere of a movie.

13. Sleep under the stars.

14. Test drive my dream car.

 

GROW

15. Run a 10k.

16. Climb a mountain. We’re not talking about Everest here, folks.

17. Take a creative class.

18. Learn to drive stick shift. It’s a skill I should have had long ago, time to buck up.

19. Watch 10 classic movies. Suggestions welcome.

20. Read 3 classic novels. Suggestions welcome.

21. Cook a Thanksgiving dinner by myself (on a random day).

22. Grow a mini garden or herbs.

23. Learn how to change a car tire.

24. Learn how to parallel park (the proper way).

25. Become conversational in Spanish.

26. Learn a new dance.

27. Try a new food.

28. Learn to play a new song on the piano.

 

SERVE

29. Pay it forward at Starbuck’s

30. Volunteer with children

 

Stay tuned for updates on my progress!

 

Post-trip Funk?

As I unpack my suitcase from the holiday weekend, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of sadness at finally putting it away. I know that any suitcase of mine shall not remain dormant for long, but with no travel plans in the near future, it is finally time for me to accept the fact that I’m back in Ohio…for now.

So much preparation and anticipation is put into the months and weeks leading up to a trip, specifically one of the abroad-for-two-months nature, but little is ever discussed about how to adjust once regular life catches up with you again. I anticipated some weariness upon returning home but thought it would involve time changes and remembering how to drive my car. Those issues were ironed out within the first few days. What really sneaks up on you is the wave of nostalgia that inevitably hits when you realize, no, you’re not in Paris anymore.

The first sentimental moments hit before I had even landed back in America. Saying goodbye to Paris and my new friends was hard and tears might have been shed on the flight home. But the excitement of seeing my family at home and being back in my own house firmly took over immediately upon re-entry. My first 10 days were marked with busy family obligations and an exciting trip to visit friends in Chicago, leaving me little time to reflect on how different my everyday life would now be.

After a week of “normal” life at home: starting a new job, completing weekly errands like grocery shopping and mowing the grass, the second wave of emotions tends to hit rather hard. I know that I have made the right decision, in returning home and starting up the American-Dream-Life again, but that does little to extinguish the feelings of melancholy that my Parisian adventure is all over.

Writers and travelers are always debating whether post-trip funk (PTF) is a legitimate condition. Now, I’m not sure that it’s considered a diagnosable disease, but I also know from talking to all sorts of travelers, that a seamless transition back into American life is basically nonexistent. Nobody at home understands just what you’ve been through, and feelings of guilt and shame accommodate every story you have to tell. If you spent time in a third world country, then Americans seem spoiled and wasteful. If you spent time deployed in a war zone, then we’re trivial and frivolous. And if you spent time in a location on the other end of the spectrum, like Paris for instance, then we’re boring and uncultured.

While we’re all a little bit of all those adjectives, it’s not like spending time abroad will prompt you to hate America. In fact, it usually does the complete opposite for me. We live in an extremely comfortable society but we tend to take our comforts for granted. Not to be confused with living in a happy society; our comforts include driving everywhere, air conditioning and presenting false niceties to every stranger on the street. It is what we’re used to and what I find myself complaining about while abroad. While we might come off as insincere to Europeans, who find it impossible to smile if not genuinely happy, I appreciate the fact that my cashier and the random stranger on the street will smile and say hello. Those are things that make America comfortable and things that I tend to value greatly upon a return home.

Regardless of returning to my comfortable surroundings at home, I still feel the funk. One of the reasons for this is we return home a different individual from the person that left. My host mom repeatedly asked how I had changed while living in France. I kept putting off the question, knowing that I would not truly understand what had transformed until I was back in my normal life. While I’m sure that some changes will not become apparent until much later down the road, I do know that some things have altered in the few weeks that I’ve been back. I’m making a considerable effort to be more active in general: walking to places if possible although suburban America is not set up to be pedestrian-friendly. I’m enjoying the freedom of obtaining my own groceries again but have significantly altered the items present on my shopping list to include less processed varieties and more fresh. I’ve decided that living out of a suitcase for 2 months (and not wearing half of the items that were packed) means that I can live with much less STUFF on an everyday basis. I’m currently in the process of going room to room through my house and getting rid of excess. I’m making an effort to slow things down and try to focus on one task at a time. I often find myself online while watching TV while cooking dinner while doing laundry and not giving any task full attention. It was my dream when moving to Europe and subsequently my goal for re-entry into normal life to slow it down and be more “present” in life. And lastly, I have been forced to stop living in the comfortable life of old routines and only my existing friends. In Paris, I knew nobody and found that if you put forth a little effort, it is really very easy to make new friends. I’m hoping to bring that mentality back to Ohio with me, stepping out of my comfort zone to get involved in new activities and hopefully meet awesome new people.

Instead of fighting the PTF head on, I’ve decided to embrace it. I’m reveling in the new “me” that returned from France and having a blast reminiscing about what lead me to this point. I don’t try to bring up stories on purpose, but I take pride in sharing them when someone asks. And most importantly, I’m focusing on looking forward to the next adventure rather than living in the past. I don’t know exactly what that will entail yet but I have a feeling that I may need some Spanish knowledge. So with that being said, and the goal of meeting new people and trying new challenges in mind, I shall now dismiss the PTF discussion and head to my first Spanish Meetup event. Au revoir and adiós folks, thanks for following my journey!

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Exploring the city alone on my first day

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Saying goodbye to friends on my last night

Living in France

I am back in the United States now and cannot pretend that I am unhappy about this fact. However, I do miss Paris and all the friends I made. This morning as I was unpacking my suitcases, I would catch sight of something especially memorable and feel the rush of emotion. Although I was certainly ready to come home, this emotional connection to my life in France has prompted me to consider the options for an American staying in France long-term.

If you wish to visit France for the summer, or the winter, or any of those other seasons, you will not have an issue. We are allowed staying in the EU for up to 90 days on just a regular passport entry. Had schedules worked out differently, I could have stayed for a few more weeks. If you plan to stay longer than 90 days or will be working at any point during your stay, then you are required to obtain a visa. Depending on your reason for living in France, there are 3 types of these visas: student visa, long-stay visa, or work permit visa. I have no personal experience on the matter and certainly not a lot of information to give, but friends living in France recall that the red-tape and paperwork of the French government is absolutely miserable to deal with.

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In the area where I lived, there are a lot of long-term au pairs as well as short-term English tutors like myself. The au pairs can stay up to one year with their visa and then are allowed to renew the au pair visa one time. After their two years are up, they must return to the States or have another full-time job lined up in France. Having a job ready and waiting for you is a great way to stay in France long-term (so long as you keep that job of course), however this is not an easy proposition. Finding a job in France is a challenge for a foreigner because of the high unemployment rate and the fact that most companies would rather give jobs to qualified French citizens. In addition, to work in France, you must obtain the afore-mentioned work permit, which is also hard to obtain. You are supposed to have the job first to apply for the visa but most companies won’t hire you without already having a work permit. Catch-22 to say the least. The work permits are difficult to obtain for the same reason, high unemployment mixed with a government who wants to protect their citizens from immigrants taking all the available jobs. In order to really succeed, you must prove that you can do this job that no French citizen is capable of doing. Or get hired by an international company with a branch in France and beg to be transferred there. I know this data is old but in 2003, France issued only 6500 visas for permanent employment, of which 313 were to Americans. There are your odds.

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One American friend I met in Paris (a Clevelander no less!) discussed her history of working in France. She has been there for seven years now but at the beginning her visas were only valid for 12 months so she would have to reapply each year. She works as an English teacher, a great way to earn a living in France. She now has a full-time long term English teaching position with a university in Paris and will be fine to stay in France as long as that job holds up. She jokes about how a good way for her to obtain citizenship in case the job falls through is by marrying a French man. She did, coincidentally, fall in love in Paris and is engaged to be married. Only problem, he’s American too.

If you are planning to live in France, then you better understand the cost of living. I only have knowledge about the Paris area, obviously smaller towns are much cheaper. Paris real estate is expensive. Bring several hundreds of thousands to millions of euros or you won’t have much more than a one-room attic closet. Feel lucky if you have an elevator, feel like you won the lottery if you have air conditioning. The restrictions for renting properties in Paris can be steep. As a rule, you should be able to prove that you make at least three times the monthly rent. If you plan to buy, you MUST have at least 20% cash to put down. And forget about the 30 year mortgage; 10, 15, 20, or 25 are the options in France. Again, you must prove that you make three times the monthly mortgage amount. My host dad worked for a bank and was astounded to hear how little down payment was necessary to purchase real estate in America. Don’t expect that in France.

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Utilities are also more expensive in France. My host mom mentioned numbers although I cannot recall them now, but the water and electricity bills were outrageous. I already discussed in a previous post how expensive gasoline is, roughly $8 per gallon while I was there. Food is not cheap either. There are some things, products of France, which can be obtained for great prices. One such item is wine. I was surprised to see how cheap wine is to buy by the bottle in a grocery store and even by the glass at a nice restaurant. I understand that living in Ohio means the cost of some items are lower just because our cost of living is relatively low. However, I was surprised and frightened by the price of some necessities in Paris. A regular package of band-aids were around 5 euros, as was a bottle of shave gel. No wonder the French have the stereotype of not shaving, at 5 euros a pop, it’s an investment!

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While I love to visit Paris and living there for 2 months was an awesome experience, I am not planning to move there anytime soon. I hope my travels take me back at some point in the future; and the great part is, now I have some long-term visa friends with whom to stay!

Les Hommes de Paris

I remember on my first trip to Paris, how our wise tour manager vehemently warned us about the Parisian men before our first excursion into the city. You see, she had first hand knowledge. Being a gorgeous blond, French-speaking Australian, she had plenty of experience fending off the natives. She said that they would not be shy and aloof like the men in London had been. She said they would definitely approach us and would probably not leave easily. She said we should seek her assistance if we were having a particularly hard time with any of them. And so, on our night out to the Moulin Rouge and neighboring bar district, we eventually had to employ her services.

However, when that entire tour group was at the top of the Eiffel Tower for an hour and my scared bum was down on the ground waiting for them, she was not there to save me from my potential Parisian suitor. I could not walk away since I was waiting for the group and it was late at night anyway. He clearly wasn’t going to leave. So I had to withstand almost an hour of his flirtation attempts, all in French, which is odd since most of the younger generation in Paris speak English pretty well. I snapped a picture to prove this really happened, thinking that it was some sort of anomaly at the time.

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I do not tell this story to brag. For it is actually not that much of a compliment to be hit on by Parisian men. You see they hit on everyone. From you to your friends to your mother and probably your grandmother if she were here. They have made flirting an art form as highly skilled and perfected as Impressionism. They have no shame, no fear of rejection, and probably no expectation that their flirting will achieve anything.

I read an article on the difference between a British man and a French Man, and for the purposes of this article, I will lump American men in with the British. The author said that British men are only taking the time to flirt with you if they have a particular end result in mind. For a French man, the end result is flirting in and of itself. Don’t get me wrong, they would probably love to get more, but do they really expect anything from a busy metro “oooh la la”? Probably not.

Apparently all this confidence and swagger comes from years upon years of practice. Like any fine-tuned skill, they start young and practice regularly. I was on a guided tour of the city a few weeks ago when a group of pre-teen boys began shouting at our group from an overhead bridge. They wanted to send all of their love our way. Perhaps the only difference between the 12 year old flirts to the 22 year olds are that they haven’t learned how to properly flirt with foreigners in English yet. Their day will come.

On another walk, all by myself this time around, a class of pre-teens walked past and every single boy said “bonjour madame” or “bonjour mademoiselle” to me. The girls were stoic and silent. I wonder which girl’s boyfriend got the silent treatment that afternoon? This does bring an interesting question to light. Surely they stop flirting if they are in a relationship, no? Can you really halt something that has been ingrained in your character since birth?

When I started telling friends and family that I was moving to Paris for 2 months, everyone (well ALMOST everyone) had the same response, “You are going to meet a French guy, fall in love, and never come home.” I tried pleading my case at the time, but nobody would listen. Maybe now, with 2 days left in Paris and no man in sight, they will believe me. It’s not that I think it’s hard to find love in Paris. I’m sure with all those immaculately-coiffed, smooth-talking men in the city that prides itself on being one of the most romantic in the world, love comes easy for some. If you want to meet a French man, all you have to do is arrive in Paris and simply walk down the street. Before you know it, you’ll be making out on metros and hanging love locks off the Pont des Arts. But I said it before and I’ll say it again, the French man isn’t really my type. I made friends with several French guys and I hope that if they read this, they won’t take it personally. Just not my style, and certainly I think my friends and family should know me well enough to understand that.

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At one point my host parents asked the million-euro question, “So what is the difference between men in France and men in America?” How does one answer this truthfully without being offensive? Luckily, my host dad is Spanish and on more than one occasion has insisted that if I want to find a good man, I must travel to Spain. I’ve been to Spain and loved EVERYTHING that the country had to offer but, alas, this post is about French men, not Spanish. I skirted around the question as much as possible and finally settled on the generic stereotypes that French men care much more about their appearance and fashion than American guys. And that American men are much less confident in the initial approach stage and will often times look for a sign of interest before they come up to talk to you. We have already determined that this is not the case with the French.

What I would have loved to say but didn’t have the guts to is that I like “manly” men and the French just don’t seem to be all that manly to me. At least not in the sense that I’m used to back home in Ohio. No words would have been necessary for this answer if I had just shown my host parents a picture that popped up on Facebook a few days later. It was of my brother and his friends after completing a Tough Mudder. First of all, the fact that they did a 12 mile obstacle course through fire, freezing cold water, and trenches all while voluntarily being electrocuted does not sound all that Parisian. Then you take into account that in the picture they are holding beers and wearing their uniform of choice which includes American flag shorts and t-shirts that read “Back to Back World War Champs.” In this case, the picture might have been worth more than 1000 words.

With my return to America imminent, I only have a few days left of the famous Parisian male attention. While usually annoying and outrageous, I can’t pretend it isn’t slightly flattering at the same time. I’m afraid it will take me a while to realize that just because random strangers aren’t hooting and hollering at me in Ohio doesn’t mean I’ve lost “it”.

Giverny

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After seeing many original works of art by Claude Monet in Parisian museums, it only makes sense to journey 45 minutes out of the city to his home and gardens at Giverny. So that is just what we did yesterday.

Claude Monet was born in Paris in 1840 and lived there until his family moved to Normandy in 1845. By the time he was ten, Monet had already enrolled in the Le Havre Secondary School of the Arts to feed his passion for art. At this time, he worked mostly in charcoal caricatures, which he would sell for 10-20 francs each. In Normandy, Monet met several other artists such as Eugène Boudin and  Johan Barthold Jongkind who taught him to use oil paints and a technique known as “en plein air.”

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When Monet’s mother died, he traveled back to Paris to live with his aunt. After joining the army and subsequently contracting typhoid fever in Africa, Monet’s aunt helped get him out of the army and back into art school. He was disillusioned with traditional art school though, so in 1862 he became a student of Charles Gleyre, where he met Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Frédéric Bazille and Alfred Sisley. This group shared new approaches to art, painting in a style that would later become known as Impressionism. Its tenets include painting the effects of light en plein air with broken color and rapid brushstrokes.

One of his first famous works was of future wife, Camille, in The Woman in the Green Dress. Throughout the 1860s-1870s, Claude, Camille, and their growing family (2 boys) moved throughout Europe, focusing on his painting. In 1879 Camille passed away from tuberculosis. Monet went through a dark period of grief but resolved to focus on his artwork and subsequently produced some of the best paintings of the 19th century. He became involved with Alice Hoschedé, mother to 6 children of her own, and together they raised all 8 children. They spent time in several Paris suburbs, but Monet was never settled.

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Giverny is a tiny village in Normandy, home to about 500 people. But when Claude Monet first saw it out of a train window in 1883, the village was near half that size and immediately appealed to Monet. He picked up his family and moved from Paris to a rented house on 2 acres. Facing increasing prosperity with his paintings, by 1890 he had saved enough money to purchase the house and land and subsequently build the gardens he had always dreamed of.

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From his arrival in Giverny to his death in 1926, Monet focused on series paintings, in which one subject was depicted in various light and weather conditions. His gardens at Giverny were the subject of many famous works of art, most notably Water Lilies. He loved building his gardens and as his wealth grew, they did too. At one point, he employed seven gardeners. His house in Giverny has two very different garden styles, the rectangular clos normand, featuring shrubs and bushes scattered like an English Garden in all shapes and sizes, and the water garden featuring a Japanese bridge and water lilies.

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Nearing the end of his life, Claude Monet developed cataracts in both eyes which greatly affected his painting. He painted in a redder hue, typical of cataract victims, but repainted some works after having eye surgery. Monet’s final water lilies series is housed in the Orangerie museum in Paris. You can read my previous post Un Dimanche Parfait for information on this series. Monet died at the age of 86. Forty years after his death, his home and gardens at Giverny were bequeathed to the French Academy of Fine Arts by his son. Following a restoration, the home and gardens were opened to the public in 1980.

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If you are interested in Impressionist art, gardening, or getting out of the city for a few hours, please consider a visit to Giverny. Even with the influx of tourists, this haven of rest gives off a calming vibe. It is not hard to see why one of the most famous French artists of all time chose Giverny as his home.

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Musée d’Orsay

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People visit Paris for a variety of reasons, but if I had to guess, I would assume that most visitors are interested in seeing some fantastic French artwork while they are here. Clearly a visit to the Louvre is in order, but also make sure you do not miss another Parisian jewel, the Musée d’Orsay.

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Containing mainly French art dating from 1848 to 1915, the Musée d’Orsay has an impressive collection of paintings, sculptures, furniture, and photography. Most impressive of all is the world’s largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces including works by Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Seurat, Gauguin and Van Gogh. However, I did enjoy various other pieces that do not fit into either category. For instance, this Delacroix painting The Lion Hunt was probably my favorite piece in the entire museum and I enjoyed a long pause in front of it picturing how awesome it would look on my living room wall. Alas, I decided not to attempt an undercoat carry-away on Delacroix so my walls will remain adorned with Kirkland’s specials and my original photography.

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Like most other museums in Paris, the Musée d’Orsay is housed in an architectural piece of art as well. A former train station, Gare d’Orsay, construction began on the impressive Beaux-Arts building in 1898 and was finished in time for the Exposition Universelle of 1900. By 1939, the station’s platforms had become too short for modern trains and so service through the Gare d’Orsay ceased. It was used as a post office during World War II and served as the set for several films throughout the middle of the 20th century. It was almost demolished in 1970, but luckily Jacques Duhamel, Minister for Cultural Affairs, voted against plans to build a new hotel in its place. Four years later, a suggestion was given to use the old train station as a museum to bridge the historical gap between the Louvre and the National Museum of Modern Art at the Centre Pompidou. The Musée d’Orsay opened to the public as a museum in December 1986.

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Due to its history as a train station, the Musée d’Orsay has the prominent design features of two massive clocks. From the 5th floor Impressionist gallery, visitors can see outside through the clocks all the way across the river and to the Montmartre area. If the trees look a little bare for June, it is because this picture was taken on my December 2011 visit.

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Unfortunately, the museum does not allow photography, but like usual, I was able to sneak a few pictures. This Autoportrait by Vincent Van Gogh was particularly a challenge since the room was packed and several museum employees were giving guided tours of the area.

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This smaller copy of the Statue of Liberty is now housed in the Musée d’Orsay. It is an original by artist Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi and a spectacular sight as an American in Paris. You can read the history of this statue here.

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My companion for the day, Britt, agreed with me that the Musée d’Orsay, although definitely not superior in size or popularity, is actually a better French art experience than the Louvre. Also, the museum was much less crowded and easier to navigate. A visit to Paris should most definitely include both museums if you have time, but if you are short on time, I would suggest taking in the true French art of the Musée d’Orsay over a hurried rush to see the Mona Lisa from 50 feet away.

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Versailles

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In an attempt to finally cross off all the typical tourist attractions from my Paris list, we ventured to Versailles on Tuesday for a stroll through the gardens during their fountain show. I have already been inside the palace on my first trip to Paris, so waiting in the massive line and paying those extra euros fortunately weren’t necessary for me this time around. Versailles was once a country village where Louis XIII enjoyed hunting in the nearby forests. In 1624, he ordered the construction of a hunting lodge in the area. Several augmentations took place until his successor, Louis XIV, had it expanded into one of the largest palaces in the world and gradually began to move the court to Versailles. The court was officially established there on May 6, 1682. I won’t bore you with too much history on the palace and instead will show some pictures from my first visit.

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The city of Versailles is a suburb of Paris, about 20 kilometers to the southwest. Where I live, Maisons-Laffitte, is also a suburb of Paris, to the northwest. This would make driving to Versailles a not-all-that-complicated procedure, as you could just stick with the suburban highways and not drive through Paris proper. However, we do not have cars. We are relegated to public transportation exclusively. And this process is not altogether complicated, but it does require extra time and patience as you have to venture directly into the city, just to come back out on the same side you were just on. Versailles is located on the RER C line and we are on the RER A. However, there are no connections between the two lines except for in the middle of Paris, through our arch nemesis, Châtelet. Even then, we had to hop on the RER B for one stop to get from the right bank of the river A line to the left bank and the C line.

Despite the long process, which took about 1.5 hours total, we finally arrived at Versailles just in time for the rain and fountain shows. Having been to the magic fountains show in Barcelona, I had an idea of what these were going to be and was excited for them. They only run the fountains at Versailles on weekends and Tuesdays so that is why we braved the extra crowds to visit on a Tuesday. However, the fountains were not what we expected at all. Unlike Barcelona (where they are free by the way) this was done in the daytime so there were no colored lights illuminating the water. And more disappointing, most of the fountains were just “on” and were not dancing at all! The music was classical, which isn’t my favorite but does fit in with the theme of Versailles. The fountains run for an hour and I’m pretty sure we spent half of that time in line for the restroom anyway.

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Covering some 800 hectares of land (sorry I have no idea how much that really is), the gardens of Versailles were designed by André Le Nôtre. He was the principal gardener for Louis XIV and designed many gardens throughout France, most notably the Tuileries just outside of the Louvre in Paris. First time visitors may be intrigued by the typical French garden, with its symmetry, immaculately manicured lawns and pathways. Unlike an English garden where nature is the main focus, a French formal garden focuses on man’s power over nature. Thus, its perfection is supposed to be looked at from afar and not interfered with. This is why, if you attempt to sit on the grass at many of Paris’ gardens, you will be whistled and asked to move. Apparently you can also receive a fine, although I have never seen it get that intense. I do think that not allowing people to sit on grass is a bit uptight, especially in a country where dogs are allowed to shit all over sidewalks with reckless abandon.

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The gardens of Versailles took forty years to complete, the same amount as the palace itself. Landscape architect André Le Nôtre saw the gardens as equal importance to the palace and designed them accordingly. Fifty fountains and over 300 sculptures punctuate the green spaces, creating an ideal place for a luxurious stroll. There are over 200,000 trees. Apparently, there are also over 200,000 flowers planted annually, although I was disappointed by what seemed like a lack of flowers. Maybe I was looking in the wrong place or it is not the right time of year. The gardens of Versailles are one of the most visited public sights in France, with over 6 million visitors per year.

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If you intend to do a full day trip to Versailles to take in the palace and gardens, then by all means, please become one of those 6 million. But after having visited just the gardens, I would not suggest trekking all the way to Versailles for the outdoor portion. There are excellent outdoor spaces in downtown Paris that offer greater beauty than Versailles if not quite the same size. I am a huge fan of the Tuileries, which is laid out much in the same way as Versailles. Or if lounging on the grass is more your style, head to one of Paris’ laid-back parks instead of a formal garden. Just make sure to watch your step wherever you decide to go!

 

Val de Loire

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Visiting the Loire Valley was something that I had never considered before temporarily moving to France. In fact, I don’t even think I had ever heard of it before. But upon first arrival, several Parisians had it on their “must-do” list for me when I asked about the best weekend trips from Paris. It was hard to narrow down which regions I would visit in my short time in Paris. France has so much history and culture to offer, nevermind the fantastic natural landscapes as well. I decided to put off the Loire Valley until my last trip, knowing that it would provide a laid-back weekend in the country. After visiting this weekend, I must concur with those wise Parisians. If you have the time, you simply must visit this exquisite land of rivers, wine and châteaux.

The Loire Valley consists of an 800 square kilometer area surrounding the middle part of the Loire River. The building of châteaux in the Loire Valley was first initiated by French royalty in the 10th century. Attracted by the moderate climate and rich agricultural land, it was the perfect place to build country palaces, hunting lodges, and vineyards. The nobility soon followed the royalty, creating an area so rich in châteaux that they number above 300. Nicknames of the Loire Valley include “Valley of the Kings” and “The Garden of France”.

When deciding to visit the Loire Valley, we simply chose the cheapest drop-off point, which is the first large town the train from Paris stops in: Blois. A once-thriving medieval village, Blois began constructing its own château in the 13th century. During the 16th century, the Château de Blois served as a resort for French royalty. The château has an unusual location, directly in the center of town, whereas most Loire Valley châteaux are country homes. Although the town was largely destroyed in WWII, there are other surviving historic features of Blois such as the bridge over the Loire River and several fantastic churches.

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Besides it’s economical advantages, Blois also presents a central location to some of the best châteaux in the region, which provided a secondary reason to make that our home base. Initial plans were to rent bikes and ride to neighboring Chambord on Sunday but the weather forecast prevented us from following through. Instead, we rented bikes on Saturday and did an easy ride along the river, catching sight of fields of flowers, ancient ruins, and the neighboring Château de Menars. This château is only about 8 kilometers from the center of town and provided a perfect backdrop for our picnic lunch of baguette, cheese, apples, tomatoes, cookies (for me), and wine.

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Although your time is best conserved by renting a car in the Loire Valley, it is highly advisable to rent a bike and take advantage of the convenient trails and gorgeous views instead. In previous trips, I would have been tempted to use trains, buses, or whatever means necessary to cram as much of the Loire into one weekend as possible. But I have learned a few things from my time in France. It is much more enjoyable and memorable to slow down the pace and really soak in one or two things rather than jumping from one thing to another rapidly. The websites suggested not trying to see more than 3 châteaux in a day, and I even think that sounds extreme. I originally planned to see one château each day but was happy to change plans when it seemed to be too much work and stress to make it happen.

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The château that we did decide to visit was well worth the trip and in my opinion, served as an excellent ambassador for the Loire Valley. Château de Chambord is the largest château in the Loire Valley with some staggering statistics: 156 meters long, 56 meters tall, 77 staircases, 282 fireplaces and 426 rooms. It was built to serve as the hunting lodge for King François I who initiated the construction in 1519 at the age of 25. The construction took 28 years to complete, although it was never properly “finished”. Built in a very distinct French Renaissance style, Chambord has been attributed to architect Domenico da Cortona, although with some doubts. Theories abound claiming the French Renaissance architect Philibert Delorme was primarily responsible for the design while others suggest it was the work of Leonardo da Vinci. Regardless, it is somehow both astounding in size and yet graceful in design.

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François I reigned for 32 years and yet he only spent 72 days of that time at Chambord. Designed specifically for short hunting stays, the château was not practical for long-term living due to its massive rooms, open windows and high ceilings that made heating it a challenge despite the numerous fireplaces. Also, the lack of proximity to a village made food sourcing a challenge other than game hunted on the 13,000 acre enclosed park. It is still the largest enclosed forest in Europe. The typical outing at Chambord would have included up to 2000 people and since no permanent furnishings were installed, they had to bring everything with them each trip.

Knowing the logistical nightmare that Chambord was, it is no surprise that when François I died, the château remained unused for nearly a century. At the time of his death, only the keep and royal wing had been finished. His son, Henry II, and Louis XIV, who were both also fond of hunting, were responsible for making Chambord look the way we see it today. The main double-helix spiral staircase stands as the central body connecting 3 floors, a central keep connects four towers. The staircase is designed so that two people could each take one flight and see each other through the openings in the central column but never meet. The ingenious plan is the main reason many suggest Leonardo da Vinci may have helped design Chambord. He had, after all, came to live in France in 1516 at the request of François I.

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After the French Revolution, Chambord fell into disrepair again and was actually used as a prison for a time. The furnishings were sold and timber was removed. It had a turbulent past, never sustaining considerable use in any century. The longest continual use was for only 12 years during the 18th century. During World War II, the art collections of the Louvre (including the Mona Lisa) were stored in Chambord. It has since become an icon of French architecture, serving as the inspiration for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast castle and welcoming many tourists annually.

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Although the interior rooms are impressive, the best part of the tour was the roof terraces. Spectacular views abound in every direction, including up at the various towers. During our 4 hours at Chambord, we spent only 1.5 going through the château and the rest lounging and picnicking on the grounds. A late afternoon sunshine-filled rest on the front lawn was one of my favorite experiences in France so far. It wasn’t the most active weekend of my life, but the Loire Valley offers experiences that will make you want to slow down, savor the sights, and be glad that you did.

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Mode Française

I’ve been wanting to write a post on the interesting fashion choices that I see in Paris for quite some time now but was waiting for just the right moment. After visiting a free exposition on Paris Haute Couture this morning at the Hôtel de Ville, I figured now was as good of time as any. Sorry I don’t have more than one picture, not allowed to take photos!

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The Englishman Charles Frederick Worth is widely considered to be the father of haute couture (or high fashion in French). In the mid 19th century, Worth revolutionized the process of dressmaking, making it more of an art than a necessity, becoming a true fashion designer. Although he created one of a kind designs to satisfy his wealthy clients, he is best known for his portfolio of designs that were shown on live models at the House of Worth. Clients selected a model, chose colors and fabrics and had a duplicate garment tailor-made in Worth’s workshop. The first appearance of true Haute Couture by Worth was unveiled, like many other famous Parisian landmarks, at the World’s Fair of 1900.

Many fashion houses closely followed in Worth’s footsteps, some of them you may have heard of such as Chanel and Dior. In the 1960s another large crop of Haute Couture brands were born when students of the first generation began leaving and creating their own design houses, including Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Cardin. The general outlines for Haute Couture include having one’s own workshop with employees that create made-to-order styles for clients after consultations and fittings. They also must participate in the fashion week events showing their designs off to members of the press.

At the height of importance, over 100 Parisian Haute Couture houses were responsible for giving the city its claim to fashion fame during the 1940s. However, today’s numbers are drastically lower at somewhere between 10-20.

Perhaps the decline of Haute Couture has affected the overall sense of fashion in modern-day ready-to-wear Paris. After my first 3-day winter journey through Paris and prior to this longer adventure in the city, I had an idealistic view of fashion in Paris. I, like most people, felt that everyone in Paris was incredibly fashionable. I was misinformed. While there are certainly many incredibly well-dressed men and women wandering the streets at all times, there are also MANY MORE weirdly dressed, awkwardly assembled people.

Let’s discuss the positive examples first. The men in suits are simply stunning. A business suit in Paris is well-tailored, expensive and looks spectacular on a handsome man. They are just on another level from suits in mid-west America. And there are definitely ladies around here rocking awesome heels on cobblestone streets. Perhaps if I hung out around the expensive shopping districts or business neighborhoods more often, I would have more opportunities to revel in these sights. However, my typical haunts are usually parks, the metro and tourist spots so I get to see the fashion of all the other Parisians, and to be fair, lots of other nationalities that can sometimes equally be determined by their style of dress.

I’ve been trying to collect pictures of interesting fashion over the past two months because as we all know, a picture is worth a thousand words. However, it is sometimes difficult to be stealthy in snapping pictures of unknowing people. And it is also rude, so shame on me. Here are a few of the “rules” I have noticed:

1. Mix and match all sorts of patterns and colors that have no common theme.

2. Men wear purses. All the time. Everywhere. Sometimes they match their shoes (see below right)

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3. Wearing “swishy” workout pants from circa 1995. I’m not sure if this style is out of date or coming back around so perhaps I shouldn’t make fun yet.

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4. Black, and it’s various shades, are the only colors in the color wheel. A joke we heard and love is “I was in a great mood this morning so I decided to wear gray.”

5. There is no such thing as “too small” “not enough coverage” or “too see-through.” No surprise here, we are in France after all.

6. The Canadian tuxedo is alive and well all the way across the pond.

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7. When the weather finally gets nice, the men in jorts come out.

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8. Socks with sandals.

9. It is never too cold to wear shorts, just wear pants or tights underneath them.

And #10. My favorite because it applies to me and allows me to be super lazy…women do not worry about their hair or makeup. Au natural is in. I refuse to leave the house with my hair sticking out in 20 different directions, but it would be perfectly acceptable here.

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Pretty sure this lady wasn’t Parisian, but she was outfitted in a full Russian style fur ensemble that warranted a picture anyway.

 

Opéra Garnier

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If you’ve ever read the book or watched the musical The Phantom of the Opera, then you have some knowledge of the Opéra Garnier. This fantastic architectural marvel is the most famous opera house in the world, in large part due to the book and musical. I’ve never been to an opera before, and I’ve never even seen the Phantom of the Opera performed, but I could not pass up the opportunity to tour such a marvelous historic masterpiece during my time in Paris.

Built between 1861 and 1875, the Opéra Garnier takes its name from the architect Charles Garnier. Garnier won a competition for the design of the new opera house after Emperor Napoleon III initiated a great reconstruction of Paris. Garnier was relatively unknown in Paris at the time. The selection of his design turned some heads, particularly the Emperor’s wife according to legend. She supposedly asked Garnier “What is this? It’s not a style; it’s neither Louis XIV, nor Louis XV, nor Louis XVI!” to which Garnier replied, “Why Ma’am, it’s Napoléon III, and you’re complaining!” The style of this building is typically called Beaux-Arts, with use of axial symmetry in plan, and its exterior ornamentation.

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The back of the Opéra Garnier as seen from the roof of the Galeries Lafayette

One of the extremely “modern” design elements that Garnier used was red velvet interiors as opposed to the typical blue color associated with kings. He thought the red was nicer for women to sit on. In the opera of the 19th century, women, with their giant bustled skirts, could not sit in the traditional auditorium seating so they were relegated to the boxes. This was not considered a punishment though, as the boxes were the place the be seen during this time. Ordinary folks could purchase individual tickets for the opera but a box was purchased for the entire year (at the equivalent of today’s 20,000 euro price) and the main reason for attending such events wasn’t to see or hear the opera but rather to show off one’s social status.

If showing off is what you are looking to do, then walking through the main staircase of the Opéra Garnier will give you ample opportunity. In those days, Paris’ elite would amble about on their way in, making sure everybody saw them arriving through the main doors. There was no chance of running into the Emperor though, he made sure the design included a separate entrance for his security after an assassination attempt was made going to the previous opera house. The entire left side entrance and rotunda (shown below) were for the Emperor. His carriage could pull into the building so that he was never subjected to potential threats. Now this entrance is used for anyone visiting the opera on a tour, so I got to walk in just like Napoleon III (although I didn’t arrive by carriage).

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The staircase is made entirely of marble, 72 different types to be precise. The marble has been collected from all over the world and in a variety of colors and designs. Paintings of Greek gods and goddesses adorn the ceiling while gold leaf embellishments are everywhere. Obviously the current lamps are illuminated by electricity so they do no damage to the interior, but the original gas lamps created a dark smoke stain on the ceiling that had to be cleaned routinely.

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Once you enter the auditorium you will immediately notice the colorful ceiling and fantastic chandelier. The original painting was so dirty that instead of cleaning it the opera house decided to build a second ceiling just under the previous and commission a new piece of art. Marc Chagall painted this brightly colored canvas in 1964 at the ripe age of 77. The original 8-ton chandelier highlights the ceiling and illuminates the entire auditorium. Unlike in the book and musical, this chandelier has never fallen on anyone and killed them.

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The layout is a typical Italian opera house style, with boxes all around the perimeter. Emperor and Empress boxes are closest to the stage, offering a terrible view of the show but making sure that everyone can see them. Garnier employed the use of iron as opposed to wood for most of the interior construction, as a precaution for fire. There are just under 2000 seats although only about 1700 are used nowadays, keeping the ones with little to no view of the stage out of use. Prices for performances range from just 12 euros for third tier seats in boxes to 180 euros for front row.

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Because singing opera every day is extremely unhealthy for the performers, the Opéra Garnier does a mix of performances. Usually the opera and ballet trade off days with occasional music concerts in between. When a new opera is proposed, the process begins 5 years in advance. This is because EVERY single element is produced in house. From the costumes to the set design. And likewise a new opera will not just be performed one year and then never performed again. Due to the high investment, they will continue to perform it off and on for years. The opera season is from September through June. Like the rest of Paris, dancers, singers and crew have vacations in July and August so don’t come to Paris during either of those months!

Although advances in technology have eased the process of changing sets around, an intermission is still needed in current times. But today’s intermission is between 20-30 minutes while the intermissions of 19th century Paris were much longer. Opera attendees did not mind though, as this gave them extra time to mingle and be seen. The perfect place for such intermission is the Grand Foyer, a nod to the Versailles Hall of Mirrors. This spectacular room is adorned with gold leaf, numerous chandeliers and fireplaces and a series of exquisite ceiling paintings, compared to the likes of Michelangelo when they were first unveiled!

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At a cost of 36 million francs in 1875, the Opéra Garnier was the most expensive building constructed in Paris during its time. One look at the extensive marble and gold will prove precisely why it cost so much. Charles Garnier had spent a great deal of time in Italy and wanted to include Italian mosaics as a design feature on the ceilings all throughout the building but was told it would cost too much. His compromise was to include mosaic ceilings only in a small portion of the main hall. What they lack in grandeur, they make up for in beauty. Naturally, gold is everywhere in the mosaics as well.

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I would be remiss to not mention the phantom in my Opéra Garnier post. Since the phantom’s box was number 5 in the book, they have included an honorary plaque for him outside box 5. Nobody has ever seen a “real” phantom at the Opéra Garnier, but the truth about an underground lake is somewhat realistic. To counter the extreme weight of the marble staircase in the front and the complex stone sets in the back, a pool of water was constructed under the relatively light-weight stage area. Someone had the brilliant idea to introduce fish to this pool many years ago so now they must provide artificial light, oxygen and food for the ever-growing fish daily at the opera.

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I don’t plan to see an opera while I’m in Paris this time around but perhaps I’ll take one in on my next visit. Regardless, it was wonderful to learn the history of this gorgeous building. Perhaps this will finally prompt me to see the musical as well!