I've had this post in the hopper for awhile and I've debated about putting it up. I don't want it to sound like France is a terrible place to visit. It's amazing and I hope to go back some day. But this particular visit was so different from anything I have ever experienced. When I went to Europe for work, I had some time to take the train to Paris. I'd never been to that city and I've always wanted to go. I knew I would not have a lot of time but I figured one day in Paris is better than no Paris at all. But timing worked out that I had a few days in Paris.
I intended to do some birding...but I did not. I'm a big fan of following instinct. When I look back on my life, my best decisions have been made while going with my gut. That's not to say that a well thought out plan doesn't have its merits, but at the end of the day, there's a lot to be said for gut instinct.
I arrived in Paris late in the evening and my train deposited me at Gare de l'Est and as soon as I stepped outside, I could see my hotel across the street. Perfect. I scored a terrific room at the Hotel Libertel with a tiny balcony that looked down on the street and train station. I had some time to kill and I saw the cafe across the street. I thought I might get a small dinner and drink before collapsing on my bed for the following day's adventures.
I walked in and the bartender was as flirty as any French male stereotype you could imagine. But I was in France and delighted and rolled with the punches, yes French guy, flirt away.
What would my first meal be:
Why escargot of course! It seemed a perfect way to start off the adventure. My bartender was very kind and helped me with my French all while giving pointers: "You do not need to tip, you Americans tip too much, I make a good wage here, no tipping."
He included a few remarks that if I got lonely my hotel, he'd help out with that. I laughed it off but didn't quite understand he was merely a precursor to what I was in for on the rest of my trip.
My first day in Paris, I slept in. In my brain, I wasn't just sleeping in, I was sleeping in in Paris! Paris, France. Above is the morning view outside my hotel and you can see the train station. When I finally woke up, had some coffee and got dressed, I debated about whether or not I would take my scope or binoculars with me. I knew pickpockets were an issue and I knew there a lot to see non birding wise. I figured that since I had seen a lot of common European birds on my other travels, I'd take my binoculars in my purse and leave the scope and digiscoping equipment behind. I took the binoculars because I wanted to see some of the details in the architecture.
I passed a park near my hotel and discovered that Paris is not a fan of people feeding birds. The signs warned you against feeding them so as to not attract too many in one spot and cause disease.
Not that those signs stopped people from feeding them anyway. And as much as I enjoy seeing rock pigeons in their native land, I don't really need binoculars for them.
That's not to say there weren't other types of birds--even different types of pigeons, like the above wood pigeon. But on a casual stroll, I felt leaving the scope behind was a good choice.
My next stop was the Louvre, I wasn't sure about going in--I love art museums but I don't relish standing in a hoard of people with iPads, phones and cameras taking pictures of the Mona Lisa rather than actually looking at the darned thing.
I had a great time wandering and getting my fill of famous landmarks and French corvids...and then the onslaught of attention started and I learned that female alone who speaks in English is the preferred target of EVERYBODY in France. Some of it flattering...some of it downright gross. It started with teenagers approaching me pretending to be mute with petitions for me to sign protesting the treatment of the deaf in France. What you were really signing was a form that you were donating 20 Euros. They then use your embarrassment or lack of understanding of the language (or dealing with a cute mute blowing kisses at you) to go ahead and to get you to just give the Euros and get out of the situation. But I have no problem explaining that I'm not giving money. The easiest way out of this situation is when you see a teenager approach you with a clip board is to walk away. Some may even ask, "You speak English" and it's easiest to say, "non" and they will walk away.
I came across a Chaplin street mime...and not the only one I encountered in Europe, Chaplin is a popular persona for street performers there. My mistake was pausing to take a photo. Chaplin Mime broke the fourth wall and started talking with me...which is when I noticed that his French had a Russian accent and he slipped between speaking either French or English with me. Then he offered to take me back to his studio for a mime lesson (ew on several levels, my distrust of clowns chief among them). I said, "No, I'm on my way to get some lunch."
"How about this, how about I join you for lunch?"
As much as I am a person who says yes to life and taking the road less travelled and as much as it might be amusing to share a tale with friends over dinner that I met a Chaplin Street Mime and he joined me for wine and steak tartar at a Paris cafe, I just could not do it.
But boy did he persist and became increasingly touchy feely in the process. The more I resisted and tried to walk away, the more he tried to put his arm around me and sell me a class. I had a firm grip on my purse at this point and opened it up and took out a 2 Euro coin to pay him to just stop talking to me.
After I escaped, I found the nearest cafe for lunch to get the smell of grease paint of my nose. My waiter was a nice young man who recommended a fine lunch. After eating he brought my check and included this:
I laughed and said thank you and that I'm pretty sure I'm 15 years too old for you. He insisted that was nonsense and no woman should spend a night in Paris alone. I pretended to put his number in my phone and said I would text him after dinner and that I was staying at Luxembourg--lying just seemed a faster way out.
I continued on my jaunt and revisited the Louvre. I enjoyed some of the outdoor art and as I was taking pictures of this, a young man approached me and asked if I would take his pictures with the Louvre and Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in the background. As I took his photo, I thought, "Wow, I can't believe some dude is trusting me to take a photo with his phone. How does he know I'm not going to walk off with it?"
We started chatting and he told me how he was a house painter in France and I detected a little bit of an Arabic accent. He was from Alexandra and having a wonderful time visiting Paris on his off time. He wrapped his arm around my arm and started telling me the history of the place. He then mentioned something about being just a student. I said, "I though you said you painted houses?"
Then he changed the subject and pointed to some statues. I was trying to formulate a polite way to say, "I appreciate what you're trying to do here, but I really just want to be alone and not be around people."
It was then that I noticed his arm had moved to around my shoulders and he was steering me away from the crowds, towards bushes and I thought, "Oh...this doesn't seem safe at all, he's actively steering me away from the crowd, towards those bushes."
I wriggled free of his grip and said, "Thank you for your time, but I'm leaving now."
That's when he grabbed me and kissed. No ladies, not one of those romantic kisses you might think happens in a Nora Ephron movie, the gross kind that tastes like whatever he had for lunch and overly aggressive tongue. I pushed him away and he went in for more.
"Arrêtez maintenant," in my loudest voice. "I am not Stella, nor do I need to get any sort of groove back." That refernce perplexed the heck out of him long enough for me to slip away into the crowd and head towards the train station. Thinking back to how touchy feeley he had been, I checked all of my valuables and all the places I had Euros and a credit card tucked on me. Everything was still in place as were my binoculars. Whew.
I don't think what I experienced that day had anything to do with me being particularly attractive, but had more to do with me looking very obviously like a female tourist alone. I decided that if I wanted to enjoy France I needed to leave my optics locked away in the hotel and to always have earphones in place to cut down on the number of people trying to talk to me.
My agenda for my next day ended up being crepes. I wanted to eat at this place, but they were closed. Bummer. I was curious what kind of business thinks a cormorant is a good mascot for a creperie. Instead I went next door which turned out to be a place that my neighbor recommended called Le Petit Josselin.
This was their Nutella Crepe and the only way I can think to describe this is imagine crispy butter flavor surrounding warm gooey chocolate with a hint of hazlenut. This was insane and even though this is one of the richest things to ever come across my tongue...I almost ordered a second one, but with butter melted in the center. Anyway, should you find yourself in Paris, make Le Petit Josselin in Montparnasse a priority. They have savory crepes and dessert crepes. I had both, but the dessert crepes are the ones that are life changing. One of the things I absolutely loved was as I sat at my table outside and had a buttergasm in my mouth was that a European blackbird was singing overhead and it's thrush-like song echoed off the buildings in the neighborhood. Here's a YouTube clip of what they sound like. What lovely music to serenade great food.
My final day I found myself at Sacre Coeur and that was a fascinating mix of religious tourists, street performers, con artists, illegal sales guys and portrait artists. The bracelet guys were fascinating. They approach you with string and what they try to do is braid it around your wrist and charge you 20 Euros. I saw them coming and said, "Non, merci," which followed by the guy yelling at me, "Hey! I love you Americans. And I love your big ass, you have good boom boom!"
Interesting sales approach and I ascended the stairs and enjoyed the view and the people. After wandering around, I descended the church stairs and saw a crowd of about 16 of the bracelet men blocking the way so no one could get past easily. I decided I had to trudge through and as I went in, two approached. I said nothing and tried to walk and each grabbed either of my arms. I yanked them away and in my loudest, crowd attracting voice yelled, "Arrêtez maintenant!"
They backed away and lifted their hands in the air as people turned to look at us. Another of the bracelet men said, "Lady, be nice, everybody is cool here, take it easy."
And I continued on my way.
That night, I decided my last meal would be at the cafe across from my hotel. Some people may not want to read this, but the absolute best bird I got in Paris was this duck I at at that cafe. Holy crap, it was fantastic--so fatty and crispy and so, so savory. I related some of my experiences of the aggressive men to the same flirty bartender from my first night. We had developed a camaraderie at this point, as I knew he was married to a former Olympic skier and took care of his kids during the day. When I told him about my husband he said, "What kind of man lets you come to Paris alone?"
"A smart one," I smiled.
So the bottom line: Paris is fantastic, but is not a place that I felt comfortable taking high end optics around. I hope I get to go back, the food is incredible and there's no way to see every museum and statue. Incidentally, if you want to get more exercise so you can eat more food, they have a bike share program called Velib' that allows you to rent bikes all over the city. Paris is pretty bikeable...but it's hilly and many of the streets are cobbled. Be prepared for inclines and a bumpy ride. I love biking but I ended up using the Metro more than the bikes.
And if you are a female alone, consider keeping headphones in your ears to avoid people stopping you to talk, don't be afraid to be loud and assertive if someone is bothering you, eat lots of crepes, visit Cafe de l'Est and enjoy the bartender there...and whatever you do, don't stop for too long in front of a Chaplin street mime.