Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Au Revoir Paris

The last day in Paris was a good one.  We went to Versailles (see post here), packed our luggage (sigh), and went for one last dinner.  After dinner we caught the metro down to the now dark edge of the Seine, where the Eiffel tower stands there sparkling, towering over us.  The Eiffel tower by day and Eiffel tower by night are completely different experiences.  Once an hour, on the hour, the yellow Eiffel twinkles with blue lights, providing a few minutes of [even more] magic.

We had reservations for 9:30 to get up the tower.  Now the Eiffel tower website “claims” to have group tickets available – for a great rate.  They are on sale 60 days before you travel, at 8:00 AM.  So I get online at 11:00 PM our time, ready to buy them, knowing that the Eiffel tower if a major tourist site.  It’s 11:01, and I select my date, time, and number of tickets.  I hit submit.  “Sorry, all sold out for this date.  Please select another date.”  WHAT?  They went on sale 1 minute ago.  So I rearrange our schedule and try again the following night.  Same message.  Again on night 3.  Behind my computer even earlier, click the SECOND my clock hits 11.  Sold out.  At this point I’m about to throw something.  How is it possible an entire days worth of tickets can be sold out with seconds?  Let me tell you – a system with robots and people paid to buy max amounts (100 at a time for example) for touring companies, who then offer to sell you “no wait, timed entry tickets for only €40!”  That is 4 times the price of the actual ticket.  This is because when you buy the ticket you can print it, and no name is required.  So third party vendors are making a fortune.  But given that they are snagging up all the tickets, it’s a choice between €40, or a 2 hour line up.  So night 4 comes – and it’s my last chance.  I’m trying to buy for the last day, and was hoping for a pre-dinner time slot, but I know my luck isn’t good.  At this point ANY tickets are better than none.  So I get out my computer, Mr. Becker’s computer and 2 iPads.  They are all set.  The clock hits 11, and we hit submit to all 4 devices, each which chose a different time.  3 of them get the “no luck” but ONE of them gets the “proceed to payment.”  9:30 PM.  Last night of the trip.  Insert sigh of relief.  [Yes, this is the kind of stuff that teacher travel planners stress over].  Needless to say, I was not impressed with the system.
So here we are, 9:30, ready to go.  First we go through security to get into the room, a 20 minute process at best, even WITH tickets.  Then we get crammed into a little elevator that holds 20 or so people.  It goes up one of the 4 legs of the Eiffel Tower, all the way to the second floor.  Then you get out, and get into a second line to load a smaller elevator to get all the way to the top.  Of course you have to go to the top.  At least the first time.  Unless you are afraid of heights. So we head to the top and enjoy the windy but beautiful views of the city.  And the kids are in love.  It’s the EIFFEL TOWER.  The symbol of this beautiful city.  Insert insane number if selfies and group photos.

We head back down to the second floor, and continue with even MORE selfies.  Team Becker.  Team Dewinetz.  Team French.  Team LEAD.  Team Council.  Team Physics.  Team Dance.  Team Grad 2016.  Team None of the Above.  Pretty much any combination of students we could think of (FYI Picture at the top right is LEAD and bottom left is Student Council).  While normally we try to get back to the hotel (and bed) at a reasonable hour (even more so with a flight the next morning), we decided to enjoy this without being driven by clocks.  Because that's how we roll in Paris.

But the time did come to head back down.  A few of us took the elevator - after 4 days in Paris there was a lot of pain from the hundreds of thousands of collective steps.  Of course, Eiffel Tower and all, a few did choose to walk down the 700 steps to the base.  We took a few steps back onto the Champs de Mars to take in the view - just in time for the 11:00 PM sparkling that you see above.  The perfect way to end our time in Paris.

I'd like to think it's never "goodbye" to Paris, but instead "until we meet again."  I'd like to think I will one day return to many places I have visited.  Because the first time you visit, you are often a tourist.  The second, a traveler.  And the third time, you're home.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Palace of Versailles

There are few houses in Europe considered more elegant than Louis' House: Château de Versailles.  This was the centre of political power in France, starting in 1682, when Louis the XIV moved there from Paris (20 km away), until the French Revolution in 1789.  The property began as a hunting lodge For Louis XIII, though you couldn't tell today, with the gold lining every wall and ceiling.  Of course the building didn't happen all at once.  Different apartments, chapel, opera house, and gardens were build for different kings, mostly coming from their own pockets (some money of which came from "New France - aka Early Canada). 

Given that we were a school group, we were lucky enough to be entitled to a super cheap tour and free entry.  For very few euros (and a LOT of phone tag) we managed to get a 9:30 tour through the chapel and kings apartments, with a guide from the museum.  We began our tour IN the chapel.  The only way you can get into the chapel is with a guide, otherwise you are looking at it through the doorway from behind a red rope.  Getting to stand inside (and photograph it!) was such an honour - and a great place to learn about the building.  Following this were rooms and apartments from the King, Marie Antoinette, and various dignitaries in between.
When the official tour wrapped we were left at the Hall of Mirrors - where the Treaty of Versailles was signed to end World War I.  This is my second time walking through this room, and I still want to know - who do I have to pay to get in hear early enough to photograph the room empty.  There should be a special reservation based photographers pass.  Sigh.  One can only dream.
Once we finished on the inside of the Palace we met in the lobby and gave two options to the group - return to Paris now, go for lunch, have a nap, start packing OR stick around, have lunch here and explore the gardens.  8 students were exhausted and headed back to the hotel, and 18 were ready to see more, sticking around the gardens with Mr. Becker, Mr. Dewinetz and myself.  We found a place to sit for lunch before walking down to the lake, past the fountains, through the flowers, and around the mirrored art piece that was super fun to photograph.   Fun, food, and smiles all around.  Our group stayed another 3 hours or so before boarding the RER back to Paris.  The 45 minute train ride is very soothing - so much so it is easy to fall asleep (especially after 5 hours wandering through Versailles!)  In fact, when we got off the train, Mr. Dewinetz realized we were missing a few kids, and had to run upstairs, wake them up, and run down the stairs back off the train - almost getting caught in the door on the way out.  Closest we have ever come to losing a student!  Who knows where they would have woken up down the line!!

Fortunate for us, it was early September, and the weather was cloudy.  While the hall of mirrors and Kings apartments were shoulder to shoulder (I think Versailles could learn a few things from the efficiency of Neuschwanstein), the arms were empty due to the clouds.  We had a reservation for a tour - which allowed us to enter through a different line than the usual tourists (though this was a school entrance only), which helped as well.  I don't know if there are secrets to a tourist free experience at Versailles, at least not in the summer season.  Maybe in winter, on a Wednesday in the pouring rain? Maybe if it snows? But regardless of the crowds, a spectacular site to be seen.  Whether history, architecture or gardening is your passion, there is something to enjoy for (almost) everyone.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Musee d'Orsay & the Trocadero

When we were planning out trip there was no question that a visit to the Musee d'Orsay was on the list.  We had seen art in Holland, and already visited the Louvre, so we knew we didn't need a long visit, but we did need a visit.  Just enough of a taste to encourage them to come back and visit again when they return to Paris (And everyone should return to Paris).
My favourite part of this building is the clock on the top floor.  I have a fascination with clocks.  The symmetry, the physics, I don't totally know why - but I find them beautiful.  The view of the clock, and through the clock, on the top floor is by far my favourite of the whole museum, and for me, reason to visit alone.  Everyone went their own direction, and of course, headed to their area of interest.  Some Van Gogh, others more modern works, others the statues.  A few aimed to check everything off the list, and others were content to work their way through a single gallery.  There is no right approach, and everyone had the freedom to find their own way.

Now there are more things to do in Paris then there is time to do them.  Some of them are things to see, some things to eat, and some experiences to have.  We gave our students a chance (a few days before arriving in Paris) to tell us what was left that THEY wanted to see and do.  We had left an afternoon free for a choice activity, and wanted to respond to their hearts call in the moment.  As a response to this, Mr. Becker took a group shopping.  They found some need food and vintage shops, and of course an H&M.  Kenkel took her group to the Pompidou - the modern art museum.  Dewinetz took a group to the Pantheon.  And my group wanted to take pictures of the Eiffel tower.  My group left the Musee d'Orsay and took the RER west to the Bir Hakeim Station.  We walked down through the collection of stalls selling watches and sweatshirts and scarves and dried fruit until we were standing under the Eiffel tower.  Then headed across the Seine to the Trocadero.  Here there is a beautiful fountain, tasty crepes, and, in my opinion, one of the best views of the Eiffel Tower.  Just far enough away to get the whole thing in the picture, and a great place to sit and just take it in.  We bought crepes and drinks and sat on the edge of the fountain, staring up at her, and watching the clouds roll by.  There were your standard hawkers trying to sell you keychains at 5 for €1,00 - so it was a good time to get some souvenirs to bring home for friends.  We took handful of photos - together, alone, standing, jumping - and we didn't rush.  We had no one to meet up with, no where to be, no one waiting.  Just time to do what we wanted at our own pace.  Moving as a group of 30 is not always easy.  Everything takes longer, and you always have to do what is best for "the group."  With just 7 of us, everyone had a vote.  We could backtrack, change our minds, stay longer.  There was a freedom that we didn't have our previous 2 days in Paris.  I also get to have more conversations with my group.  I felt like I got to know Josh, Allison, Tamara, Pallvi, Shiraz and Nicole even better than I did before.

After we felt we had adequately taken in our views of the Eiffel tower, we walked back to the metro and decided on dinner across from Notre Dame - again - looking for French foods and great views.  We decided that French Onion Soup and Escargot and Croque Madame were on the wish list, so we took the RER east to our destination.  Strangely enough, our group ran into team Dewinetz at the SAME RESTAURANT.  So we took up the table next to them and began our French feast.  Mr. Dewinetz made sure to let the waiter know that our students COULD speak French, and forced them to try ordering en Francais.  We ordered food on the cheaper end of the budget so that we could save a few euros for dessert.  According to a blog I follow, one of the best places for gelato in Paris was just down the street.  So, along with team Dewinetz, we went in search for gelato before taking the metro back to the hotel.  It was a great night for my group, and myself.  I plan a lot of trips - personally and professionally - and I appreciate well researched and well organized itineraries.  And I appreciate even more remembering that those itineraries are but a loose guide.  Sometimes it is essential (like when working with large groups), and sometimes it's more important to just see where the day will take you.  This was one of my favourite experiences on the trip, and one I plan to incorporate into all school trips to follow.  As for the gelato - I give it two thumbs up.

A Parisian Picnic

One of the quintessential Parisian experiences is a picnic in the park.  Freshly baked breads, and smelly cheeses, and maybe a seasonal fruit or two.  In the morning the students, along with Mr. Becker and Mr. Dewinetz, headed to the Catacombs with them.  Due to the fact that I am not a fan of being trapped underground in small enclosed spaces, I decided to opt out and pick up a picnic lunch instead (along with Ms. Kenkel's help).  The area that we were staying in is south of the Seine, known as Montparnasse.  I really love this arondissment - it's full of local charm and just far enough away to feel like you aren't as touristy as you really are.  It's the perfect place to begin your quest for the perfect Parisian picnic.
Step 1:  Head to Rue Raymond Lossard - there is everything you need to stock up for a picnic.  A boulangerie, to pick up fresh bread - my new favourite being Baguette Viennoise - a baguette with chocolate baked into it (like chocolate chips, not a chocolate centre).  Then to the fromagerie, for some French standards - Pont l'Eveque, Roquefort, Brie, Chèvre.  Next to the boucherie to buy a French delicacy - Fois Gras (I won't get into the debate of animal cruelty vs. preserving French culture here...though the internet has much to say about both).  Then the produce stand (cantaloupe and kumquats), and Monoprix for crackers, deli meats and butter.  Lastly, the patisserie, for 4 boxes of fresh made tarts (assorted flavours).  

Step 2: Immediately regret not bringing a rolling cart for all your newfound culinary treats.
Step 3: load your purchases as you go into reusable cloth bags.  Better for the environment and easier to carry.  Also, makes it more convincing that you are a local.
Step 4: Walk 4 blocks to the nearest metro station.  Attempt to get your ticket out of your pocked while holding all the groceries, now bruising your arms.  Lift them up high to try and get through the gates and turnstile, all while not dropping things.  The real locals will roll their eyes are you while you struggle, because no one in Paris would look this stupid.
Step 5: Walk down 6 flights of stairs to the actual metro.  Because escalators are only found in the HUGE stations, not the small local ones off the tourist path.
Step 6: Wait for the train.  Rest your bags against the ground, and count down the long 3 minutes it takes for the next train to arrive.  Get into the car, only to realize that there isn't a practice place to sit while holding 4 boxes of pastries, and end up leaning against a wall.  Space your feet hip width apart to balance yourself and give you some stability, because you don't have hands to hold on to anything - this is going to be some core exercise.
Step 7:  Try to distract yourself while counting down the 20 minute ride.  Move awkwardly at each stop as people get on and off and have to move around you and your boxes and bags.  Oh - and of course keep an eye out for pick pockets.
Step 8:  Arrive!  Almost there, right? No.  Gotta walk back up those 6 flights of stairs to the street level.  Stop and find a map to figure out which of the 6 exits will take you to the park.  Take the wrong exit anyway.
Step 9:  Walk for 10 minutes to find a bench.  Put everything down.  Ensure that no birds are around to eat your food.  Gather as many chairs as you can.
Step 10:  Use plastic butter knives to carve up a cantaloupe.  Avoid swarm of bees.  They also like cantaloupe.
Step 11:  Wait for 26 teenagers to arrive and feast - Parisian style.  Forget about the hassle - it was 100% worth it. 
Step 12: Following lunch, pull up a chair along side the fountain, and soak in the sun.  Try to savour every sound, smell and sight.  Repeat to yourself, quietly, "I can't believe I'm in Paris," or "This is amazing," or "It doesn't get better than this."  If you'd like, alternate all three.  Conversation with friends is welcome. Silence is also an excellent choice.  Just soak it all in.

Congratulations - you have mastered the picnic.