“For a 5 star palace, the silence of a church, or a romantic honeymoon… Honestly, you make the wrong choice. You should find another address.”
So read the little slip that welcomed me to BVJ hostel in Paris’ famed Montmartre district. The sass managed to make me chuckle after a long exhausting morning that started with moving out of my studio and catching a 3-hour train ride from Lyon. On the way I mused about how my experience of the French capital would be. Will I adore it as much as the writers, artists, lovers, tourists and pretty much everyone who have idolized it for centuries? Are the Parisians really as snobby, rude and elegant as people say? Luckily, I had nine days to find out.
My adventure began as I hopped off the train. My plan was simple: follow Google Maps to change two metro lines, then walk for 10 minutes to my hostel. So I set off to navigate the Parisian metro with a backpack, a bag and my sixty-pound luggage, a proud feat that I still regard as semi-miraculous: how did I manage to pack all the winter and summer clothes and miscellaneous things I brought from the States and the 6-month worth of new buys including souvenirs ranging from Venetian masks to ceramic cups? Nothing short of a packing master! Anyway, when it was time to get off my first ride, I exited the car and promptly headed toward an elevator…that did not exist.
It still beats me how the most traveled city in the world doesn’t have elevators at every subway station for those who might want to avoid the stairs eg. the old, the disabled, the lazy, the tired, the lazy and tired tourists with hefty suitcases like me. I stared at the stairs with despair for 30 seconds before switching on my power mode to labor up the stairs, only to turn at the corner and saw more ahead of me.
I must have looked pitiful because six passersby stopped to offer help during my trip. The surprised looks on their faces as they lifted it with me were priceless, as if saying: “I didn’t sign up for this!” I refused a fragile old lady whose bones I feared would break if she were to haul this monster. Eventually when I got back to Hong Kong I realized the veins in my hands were bulging more than ever; but what a privilege it is to have your hands veined tugging luggage! That said, my first impression of Parisians was that unlike their image, they were actually quite nice and willing to help.
My dorm had 8 beds—2 solitary mattresses on the floor and 3 bunk beds. I was lucky to be the first one coming in, so I dashed to the corner to claim a mattress isolated from the impending snoring and bed movements. In the next 8 days, I would see people come and go, and converse with young and old ladies from around the globe. This includes an Argentinian literature research professor who snored loud, an American college student obsessed with Roger Federer who would die to become Mrs. Federer and whose sole activity in Paris was to watch him play tennis EVERY DAY, a Korean instructor teaching at Ewha Womans University whom I enjoyed talking to every night and had breakfast with, Mexican girls including one who debated America’s racial relations with me, and an old Kazakhstan woman who spoke English that no one understood and who frightened me when I woke up to her sleeping naked across from me. She snored loud too.
Because I was a cheapskate trying to save subway tickets, I virtually started every day by walking 45 minutes to my first site, and took “bus 11” all day from one attraction to another. One time I even walked 7km straight (4miles+) from La Défense to the Eiffel Tour. Crazy right? It could have taken less time with the metro, but I enjoyed experiencing the real Paris by gandering at its old and new buildings, and taking all kinds of detour whenever I saw something that caught my eye. A bonus was that my legs were super toned after the trip! The sun sets really late in Europe during the summer and I really took advantage of that to hop all over town until late.
With Eiffel Tower, I carried out my time-tested observation tower strategy: visit before sunset, so I could watch the city flaunt its beauty in broad daylight, be bathed in sunset, then gleam with thousands of lights. It took two elevator rides to reach the top, and as I often do with cable car, I started to compulsively picture the elevator sliding down the A shape of the tower when I was on it! With tourists shoving around everywhere, it was hard to even get a picture without people accidentally photobombing. My theory was that there would be so many more amazing photos of the view on Google anyway, so I took mostly mental photos. Heading back to BVJ around 11, my fatigued self was resting on a bench on the subway platform when a man walked by and stood less than 2 meters away from me. I didn’t pay it no mind until a streak of mysterious yellow liquid steadily flowed from his direction toward me and got dangerously close to my shoe…OH HELL NO!
Catacombes de Paris
With a city strewn with attractions like Paris, I had to say the most unique one for me was the Catacombes. For centuries, Paris has been home to millions of people—living and dead. When its city cemeteries became overcrowded in the 1700s, officials decided to move the buried human remains to underground tunnels of ancient quarries that once provided limestone to build the city. That is how the Catacombes de Paris came to be: frequented by Royals at first and then opened to the public since the 1800s, the Catacombes house the bones of more than 6 million Parisians. Today, tourists can visit 1.5km (0.9mile) of the 322km- (200mile) underground network.
After walking 100 steps down to descend 20 meters underground, I expected to be immediately surrounded by the bones and skulls—and I was wrong. In fact, I walked another hour through the chilly tunnel before finally reaching the actual ossuaries where the bones were. Most bones were stacked up like wood logs, with some being artistically arranged in shapes like crosses. The self-guided tour allowed me to take as much time as I wanted wandering and reflecting on life and death.
Once you’ve seen enough bones for a lifetime, you’ll get used to the sight and not find it as spectacular as you first did, but the Catacombes are definitely unlike anything I had seen before and would be great for anyone interested in seeing a different, eerie part of Parisian history. A security guard waved me over at one point—at first I thought he was going to tell me about some rule, but it turned out he just wanted to chitchat with me (can’t do that with the dead I guess!). He asked me about where I came from, and was surprised that I was traveling alone. After satisfying his curiosity, I asked him the burning question: Are you ever scared? Surprisingly, he said yes—especially when he did nightshifts! Unfortunately, he had no ghost stories to tell…yet!
Tip: Long lines alert! The popular attraction allows only 200 visitors inside at the same time, so either get here early in the day and have something ready to entertain you, or buy more expensive tickets online to skip the wait. Audio guide is available for 5 euros.
What comes to your mind when you think of cemeteries? Having grown up in Hong Kong, I would instantly think “crowded”, “smoky” and “haunted”; yet the cemeteries in Paris taught me that “beautiful” and “artistic” are apt adjectives too. The Père Lachaise, Montparnasse and Montmartre cemeteries of Paris boast of famous permanent residents like Chopin, Sartre and Oscar Wilde. Though I only walked past the Montmartre cemetery (missed the hours), I was truly shocked by how a pedestrian bridge hung right over it! Literally, you would be walking above graves. Montparnasse surprised me by how verdant and serene it was—I was actually comfortable enough to rest on the benches. With all kinds of creative tomb sculptures, avenues neatly dividing the cemetery into sections and its ubiquitous greenery, the cemetery celebrates life and its beauty rather than dwells on loss and melancholy. What’s especially worth mentioning is its impressive mausoleums—these burial structures resembling little houses one-up each other with elaborate decor, and made the cemetery feel more like a garden museum.
Tip: It’s easy to get lost in these huge cemeteries, so be sure to go in knowing whom you want to visit, then take a picture of the map at the entrance or borrow a laminated copy on site!
As a Chinese person I’m always comforted by the thought that no matter where you throw me off a plane on the world map, I will always land somewhere with a Chinese immigrant population that can help me translate and survive. Wild thoughts aside, I’m sure Chinatown’s where plenty of immigrants found livelihood when they arrived in a new country not knowing anyone or any place. The Chinatown in Paris is the largest one in Europe, with inhabitants hailing from not just China, but also Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and other countries. If you want to see attractions, avoid it—because there is none. I, on the other hand, ventured here out of curiosity to see what these resilient people had built miles away from their original home.
My first thought upon arrival was that it was more much structured and sizable than the one in Manhattan: you distinctly know you’ve entered a different district when you step in it. With two exclusively Asian malls and a housing complex strongly reminiscent of the ones in Hong Kong, I found an intriguing familiarity in the most foreign place. As if stuck in the time their owners settled in France, many stores had old-fashioned design that beamed me back to the 80s or 90s.
Walking there made me contemplate the immigrant/national relationship. I felt that only immigrant countries like France would accept sharing such a big chunk of their space with people of different races and cultures, but even for them, living together in a truly integrated and respectful way is a totally different story. As the influx of immigrants and refugees in Europe gives rise to both social issues and racial conflicts, the question of how to maintain a balanced relationship between immigrants and nationals without compromising too much the interests of either side is more pertinent than ever. Perhaps making humans get along is a perennial challenge, but I think it’s one worth having.
Even a self-acclaimed art illiterate like me felt the need to visit the three world-class art museums that Paris had to offer–Louvre, Orsay and Pompidou. I’d recommend Louvre and Orsay for everyone because of the wealth and variety of their collections, and also because their beautiful architecture is eye candy in itself. Pompidou’s art, on the other hand, was too abstract for me to appreciate.
Louvre for various forms of artwork from all over the globe from different eras. From antique Egyptian coffins to grand European murals and Pacific Islander sculptures, there will be something that you recognize from your elementary school’s art textbook (like Mona Lisa) and make you go “ah-ha”! Just covering all the collections here would easily take 3 hours.
Tip: Be sure to enter through the Portes des Lions entrance– the hidden entrance on the right of the main entrance! Whereas lines were super long at the main entrance, I didn’t have to wait one minute entering through this one.
Orsay for famous works by Impressionist masters like Renoir and Monet and beautiful sculptures. A former train station, the museum definitely has a more personal feel to it than the crowded Louvre. The most memorable piece for me there is one fittingly called “Origin of the World”—a realistic painting of a vagina! I stood aside to watch incoming families’ reactions for fun.
Pompidou for modern and contemporary art. Here you can find eccentric styles of art from the 1900s such as Expressionism, Cubism, Dada and Surrealism that make your head spin as you try to understand what they are illustrating. The museum’s exterior is quite unique and picture-worthy.
Now before you judge me for eating Japanese food in Paris: dining out at French restaurants every day wasn’t exactly sustainable for the wallet, and I was craving Asian food—so without much debate I went into a Japanese restaurant, never thinking that I would have one of the most memorable conversations I had during my travels there.
For some reason, most of the Japanese restaurants ashore I’ve been to are owned by Chinese people. When the boss came over to take my order, naturally he was curious as to why this girl was dining alone—and asked me where I was from. When I said Hong Kong, his face immediately lit up—and the conversation switched to Cantonese! It turned out he was an ethnic Chinese Laotian who immigrated to Paris many years ago. I of course seized the chance to learn about his life, and he started to talk to me about his story…
He grew up in Laos and received a very traditional Chinese education there, even studying the ancient Chinese texts, the Four Books and Five Classics. He had three daughters and they were all filial, but since they all grew up in France they inevitably had a very Western mentality, which he lamented. His daughter was about to marry a non-Chinese guy, but he and his wife were happy with their future son-in-law anyway because he was a nice guy. Then somehow it led to:
“After all, a woman shouldn’t focus on her career—the most important thing to her in her life is her family. It’s important to marry and form a family,” he said.
I disagreed but I didn’t want to be confrontational either, so I mildly said: “It’s funny, because growing up my mom always told me if you don’t find the right person, don’t get married—it’s okay to be single. In fact, some people like to be single and they can lead a very happy life too.”
“Well your mom is wrong,” he said matter-of-factly. I didn’t know how to respond to that. It was a weird moment because I was shocked by his audacity to tell a stranger that her mother was wrong and didn’t know if I should feel offended. I was also trying really hard to resist my urge to laugh because of how blunt he was and the sharp turn the conversation took. He continued:
“When you are old and without children, no one will take care of you, even if something bad were to happen. You’ll be alone and sad, and it’ll be too late to regret then,” he said. Besides disagreeing with his view that single=miserable, I also took issue with the thinking that a primary reason to have children was to maintain one’s quality of living in his later years. With someone who had such a strong view, I figured what I said wouldn’t change anything, so I might as well just let it pass. To this date, I’m still glad that I walked into this hilariously awkward situation and learned a very different opinion from a stranger.
Other things to do:
♣ Cross the famous bridges: Pont des Arts, Pont Alexandre III, Pont Neuf, Pont de Bir-Hakeim, etc.
♣ Take a stroll on Île de la Cité
♣ The spot next to Notre Dame: there’s always street performance!
♣ Churches: EVERY ONE OF THEM! St. Chapelle, Sacre Coeur, St. Eustache, La Madeleine, St. Augustin, St. Germain de Pres, St. Etienne du Mont, St. Trinite…and many more.
♣ Picnic in the Luxembourg Gardens
♣ Meander in Le Maris quarter
♣ Look at the Panthéon and Hôtel de Ville
♣ Moulin Rouge—Even if you don’t watch the pricy show, be sure to visit the neon-lit Montmartre quarter at night. The many strip clubs and sex toys stores there taught me that sex shops have no trademark names—the street is filled with “SEX SHOPS” or “SEXY SHOPS”!
I also went to Mont St Michel and Versailles on this trip—maybe I’ll blog it later!
/About blogging twice a month…I can do it but it would be at the expense of quality, so I’ve decided to do it when I’m ready! (hopefully it’d be close to once a month :P)