[Article by North Bend resident and pet trainer at Miss Lola’s Academy for Wayward Dogs, Melissa Grant]
So once again, like all my vacation ideas, it started with a Facebook post…
“Anyone interested in staying in our apartment and looking after our cats when we go away July 21 -31? We live in the 3rd arrondissement of Paris. It’s a small apartment, two rooms, with a double bed and a small double sofa bed.” -Emily
We had been to Paris in 2010, but only for nine days and felt we didn’t have enough time to see everything we wanted to see. The opportunity to go and not have to pay for a hotel seemed too good to pass up, so I replied to my friend to inquire about the possibility. I got this message in return:
“Hi Melissa, I saw your message on the post about taking care of our cats. Britt and Josh are definitely coming in July. But, I wanted to tell you that we’ll be away for three weeks at the end of October/beginning of November. We’ll have moved to the 10th arrondissement by then (right near Gare du Nord). Anyway, if it works at some point for you to pet sit, you know I’d love to have you and the cats would, too! I hope all is well.”- Emily
Three weeks! Could we do it? That seemed like an impossibly long vacation. I’m self-employed and frankly had never taken anything longer than ten-day vacation in my entire working life. Could I plan such a long vacation? Organize all that travel? Find someone to do all my work for me at home? Take care of the house and the pets? After talking it over, we decided to do it and on my (ack) 50th birthday in July I got first class tickets for October – using air miles my husband had accrued over 15 years – to Frankfurt, Germany for the first leg of our European adventure!
We found out the kitties could be left for one night at a time so I spent the next three months researching side trips, day trips and things to do in the city. I booked hotels, trains, rental cars and tours. I found a rotating crew of pet sitters for my own animals and furiously cleaned my house so they wouldn’t think I was gross. I worked every job I could so I could afford to buy every tchotchke I saw while there; people to work my jobs; and started packing in September. I’m sure I irritated everyone even remotely associated with my trip until the morning of our departure. Then had complete travelers remorse and wasn’t sure I wanted to go.
Until I saw International first class for the first time.
First class is pretty much out of reach for most people. I’ve been bumped once or twice in the states and had a frequent flyer friend upgrade me, but international is a pricey thing. In general, I had come to dread long flights – sitting bolt upright trying to sleep while trying to not infringe on my neighbors space. But this time? I swear I heard angels singing when I walked into that first class cabin. “Would I like a glass of Champagne?” “Why yes, yes I would.” ”A hot towel?” Not entirely sure why, but I’m going to go ahead and pretend I know why and say, “Yes, thank you.”
I slept, watched movies, got complementary eye shades, lotion and for once, didn’t feel like poop on the other end of the flight. The food still sucked and now I’ll never be able to go back to coach, but I’m extremely grateful for the experience.
Our first stop was Frankfurt, Germany. It was the most cost-effective place to go with air miles and my German born
man spent time in his younger years there exploring the city. I’m not familiar with the European train system, but he is so we hopped on the Regionalbanhof from the airport to the Hauptbahnhof in Frankfurt City. Had it been me alone I probably would have called a cab, but this is the way people get around so we dragged all four of our suitcases onto the train and rode a short 15 minutes to the city center. I was struck by how clean the station was and how smoothly things ran.
The trains left on time. Those entering politely waited for people to exit and older people and children were always offered a seat. Even though Frankfurt wasn’t a planned destination, we managed to squeeze in a trip to old town and attractions like the Romer, a collection of 15th to 18th century house, the Ostzeile, half-timbered houses and St. Leonard-Kirke Church.
The next day we lugged our bags back to the Hauptbahnhof and boarded a high-speed train for Paris. High speed trains have revolutionized train travel in Europe. Going up to 200 mph, travel times have been cut by as much as half. You can now get from Frankfurt to Paris in just 3 hours and 48 minutes! On the straightaways when passing another train you certainly feel all of that speed and it can be a bit unnerving to those of us unused to train travel. All in all it was a relaxing and enjoyable ride to our home away from home in Paris.
Our first time in Paris we rented an apartment in an area of the city called Passy in the 16th arrondissement. I didn’t know it at the time, but it is the home to many of the city wealthiest residents and has a reputation for snobbery. We stayed in a lovely little studio apartment with a view of the Eiffel tower across the river Seine. It was easy to get around, close to everything we wanted to see, had a large kitchen/bathroom/washer and dryer. It was very small by U.S. standards, but still quite comfortable. The place we would be staying in this time was new to us, and it turns out, new to Emily too:
“It’s in a more metropolitan-feeling part of Paris (I describe it as less quaint Paris and more world city). Some people think it’s a sketchy area and it can be more intimidating than the Marais. I haven’t lived there yet so it’s hard to say, but I’m not too worried– did want to let you know that, though.”
No problem! We don’t need the lap of luxury. We’ll be there for almost three weeks, might as well live like a local. I clicked the link she provided, but really didn’t make note of the size of the apartment. The average size of an apartment in the US is now 934 square feet, down almost 100 square feet from ten years. Admittedly, we live in a very large house, but we’re on vacation. We can live in a smaller space on vacation!
We arrived at the station, walked the few blocks with our four bags to the apartment, up four flights of stairs (Well, he did. I got to take the elevator up with two bags.) to see our new pad of 270 square feet! Most places in Paris are just super small. Emily and her husband aren’t unusual.
In Paris there are about 55,000 people per square mile. Here in the Snoqualmie Valley there are about 44 people per square mile. It may have been my imagination, but I swear even the people were smaller. Several times I felt like a giant standing on the subway towering over the locals.
We spent the next several days exploring the city and seeing the things we missed the last time we were in town. We shopped the Champs-Elysees, ok window shopped. Looked at the Arc de Triomphe, but rejected waiting in line to go up to the top. Attempted to puzzle out a modern art exhibit at the Palais de Tokyo called “Days are Dogs” which had nothing to do with dogs. Searched the Passy cemetery for Debussy’s grave with no luck, and ate our weight in fresh pastries.
We discovered several other ways we were different from Parisians. For one, what they thought required scarves, hats, gloves and heavy jackets was a temperature of about 60. Being Washingtonians, we were shocked at the volume of clothing walking down the street. We got funny looks for not wearing coats and gave funny looks at the Parisians for wearing scarves. We even spoofed our French friends with a picture in their apartment with their curtain – and their cat.
French restaurants never give you ice; call raw meat “medium” (ask for it “black” to get it medium); and take an eternity to bring you your check. However, on the plus side, you can nurse one cup of coffee for hours; tips are included in the check (so there is no pesky figuring); and there is a café every ten feet.
After several days of wandering, we set off for an overnight trip to the Normandy Beaches and Mont St Michel. I am an obsessive hotel booker. Not satisfied with just Trip Advisor, I have to check them all, plus double-check and cross check them with my all-time favorite Frommer’s. I found a charming Chateau hotel in Bayeux, a quaint town close to the Normandy Beaches, and got an invite to the Table d’hotes (the host table) for that evening.
We took a train to Caen, France, picked up a rental car at the train station and headed to the Memorial de Caen in Normandy. The Caen Memorial explains World War II and the Normandy D-Day Landings in context. It starts at 1918 and continues up to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. You emerge rather shell-shocked, but understanding a little better what led up to the D-day landings.
From there we headed to the cliffs above Omaha, Utah Beaches and Pont Du Hoc. It’s quite tranquil and pretty when you first arrive on the cliff above the beaches – and hard to imagine what happened on that day so long ago. It’s quite bucolic looking with sheep and goats grazing nearby and seagulls screaming in the wind. But as you move closer to the sea you can see large pits in the landscape and soon realize that they aren’t naturally occurring, but rather scars left in the earth when the US bombed German positions in the weeks leading up to the Normandy invasions.
Seeing this and the German bunkers was certainly impressive – especially looking over the cliff to see the distance and terrain the Rangers had to face on D Day. Exhausted, we made the drive back to Bayeux and our hotel, the Chateau de Damign,’ a historic castle from the 19th century. One of my Frommer’s finds, I had booked a three room suite that included a sunroom. Good thing, too, because 250 sq. ft was making us a little surly at this point. A steal at only 88 euros, it included breakfast so when we offered dinner with our hosts for another few euros we jumped at the chance.
Dinner is served late in France, usually 8pm or later. They served at 7:30 for the ugly Americans. Vincent and Corinne started us off with an apple flavored aperitif and several meat and cheese appetizers while we chatted with their cockatiel. Shortly after the food and wine started rolling out. There were potatoes, carrots, cauliflower baked with cheese, red wine and white wine, duck with cream sauce, bread and local cheeses, more red wine and white wine, liquors, and more cheeses, some kind of melt in your mouth chocolately fondant dessert and more cheese and more wine and more liquor and more wine – and by the way, breakfast starts at 7….what?
The next morning was eggs prepared any way you wanted and Nutella crepes and coffee and croissants and more chocolately fondant and fruit, If you ever get to Bayeux France, remember that hotel name. It was wonderful. We managed to roll out of the hotel and head south to Mont St. Michel, an Island commune with an 11th century abbey. I mapped the drive from Bayeux to Mont St Michel when I was in the planning stages and came up with much shorter drive than the drive we seemed to be on. So what was going on? We were being routed on tiny little country dirt roads through dusty little fields and towns……
[A little aside here. You know the song Stairway to Heaven and the lyric “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow don’t be alarmed now”? Well a hedgerow is a very tall bush. There. There is something you know now and something I saw on this drive.]
So at a certain point nature called and we pulled into a little general store in one of the small towns to buy some water and use their bathroom – called a toilet there and frequently not free. I struck up a conversation with the man behind the counter only to find he was from Redmond and he and his partner moved to this very small town to open a B&B and put on a Drag show every weekend. Small world!
We finally found Mont St. Michel and boy was it gorgeous! It is breathtaking in beauty and in effort. Many steps are needed to get to the top of the Abbey, but the view is well worth the effort. The town was very touristy and I didn’t really give it a second glance, but the Abbey is stunning. Photo opportunities abound. I wish we could have seen it at night, but since it had taken us longer than expected to get there – and since we had to return the car and catch a train back to Paris and the kitty – we reluctantly left.
Next in Part II- Giverny, The Louvre, A Seine cruise, Luxembourg, Strausbourg, the Effiel tower and more!