Friday, July 1, 2016

Bad Boys and Good Bubbles

It pays to tell people I'm on my way to Paris as a birthday present.

When the genial Delta staffer heard the news, he first called me "the lovely Karen," then congratulated me and followed up with cards entitling us to free wine or drinks on the plane. Not a bad start.

Having successfully conquered a 20 hour flight to South Africa and back over a decade ago, I'm not one to complain about flights and this one to de Gaulle Airport via Detroit would have been completely painless (except maybe for the being up for 26 hours part) had it not been for the guy sitting two rows behind us who managed to talk loudly to his friends for the entire six-plus hours.

The cabin was dark, most people were sleeping or attempting to and he just never shut up, a non-stop stream of blather, fortunately in an unidentifiable language so at least it was just noise and not over-sharing.

After dropping our bags at the chic hotel Marceau Bastille, we gathered our forces to head out and force our bio-rhythms to adapt to the jump ahead in time. Sure, it felt like the middle of the night, but to Paris, it was mid-morning, so we joined the fray and struck out, bleary-eyed for adventure.

The weather was gray and overcast but temperate enough that my two-dress combination - a first for me but rather clever, I thought - combined with plenty of walking was sufficient despite a complete absence of sun.

Strolling along the canal admiring fancy houseboats fitted out with weathered teak dining sets, rattan seating areas and lots of colorful potted plants, each one all but screaming "party boat," our route took us almost directly to Notre Dame, so we climbed up in search of the ever-present queue to enter the magnificent structure I first encountered in a college architecture history class.

Everything I recalled from books and slides was right there in front of me: flying buttresses, the Rose window, the towers.

Unexpected was the seating for those waiting to make confession with one of the two priests nearby ("The priest doesn't have all afternoon," I was warned) and a sudden, "Shhh, silencio!" announcement as a children's choir paraded out in formation, songbooks in hand.

As crowds formed to watch or film (don't get me started), we paused to appreciate the sound of children's angelic voices filling the incredibly high space.  And while I don't tear up at the sound of children's choirs, some people most definitely do.

But my absolute favorite part of Notre Dame was seeing that individual panels of the massive stained glass windows opened into the church, the overall design of the larger window interrupted by the colorful glass squares propped open to the July air.

Wandering the streets afterwards in search of lunch even though it felt like the crack of dawn, I spotted Les Mauvais Garcons, the name too irresistible to pass up. Who doesn't like a bad boy after church?

We were the only customers and our server, a pleasant woman whose English was only slightly better than my French, welcomed us in to the tiny bistro, delivering a bottle of Muscadet with a beatific smile.

Although the menus she gave us were written in English, the food was straight French: a salad of lettuces, tomato and thick-cut bacon and what was charmingly translated on the menu as "beef mouth" with lentils and potatoes, a rich combination that all but guaranteed we'd be asleep soon.

Too full for anything more, we nonetheless had chocolate gateau with creme anglasie when she all but insisted that we needed dessert. Actually what we needed was a nap, but on returning to the hotel, we were informed it would be another half an hour before our room was ready.

It was apparently 30 minutes too long because I sat down on a chair in the lobby and was soon fast asleep, right there in front of the world and guests coming and going.

But the real payoff came once we were up in the room and could crash completely for five straight hours despite the clamorous sounds of Paris outside our open French door-style windows. Honestly, I'm not sure fireworks four floors down could have awakened us from our stupor.

Determined to hew to Parisian time in earnest, we awoke to wash off the detritus of travel and go out for a Friday night in the City of Light, albeit one in the neighborhood so we didn't have to tax our brains with too many logistics.

Letting the guidebook do the work, we chose Les Siffleur de Ballons, a wine bar with a good attitude, cactus in the front window and a tiny room with five tables and three walls full of bottles for sale. Mobbed when we arrived around 9, a handsome Frenchman promised us it would be "deux minutes" and we waited, watching the staff bustle about the satisfied-looking crowd.

Once ensconced at our tiny two-top, glasses of Champagne in front of us, the leaden sky opened up and rain poured down outside while we tucked into an extensive cheese and charcuterie plate that no one in Richmond could possibly serve for the same price.

Or the same ambiance. From the white-haired woman in black leather pants and a ridiculously fashionable white silk duster to the adorable server who had to ask the woman in the red pumps to move so she could retrieve a bottle of Champagne from over her head, everyone seemed to be having an effortlessly stylish and sparkling Friday night at the neighborhood wine bar.

Tired yet be-scarfed, I'm beyond excited that my birthday celebration has begun anew in Paris.

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