Paris : Epic Fail

I had prepared for my visit to Paris for months. Because I had heard all of the rumors that Parisians were rude to those who didn’t at least make a modest attempt to speak their language, I had practiced French nearly everyday for months in an attempt to not be the typical American who could only speak English. I really cared about respecting the culture and figured learning a few phrases would show that I was not some pretentious American.  I also researched where to go if you were pressed for time, being that I only had about 9 hours in the city.  The whole reason to visit Paris was to take my dad on the most unique day trip possible within a few hours by train from Amsterdam.  The choices were between Cologne, Luxembourg, and Paris (since we had already planned a day trip to Bruges).  So I imagined that Paris would be the most unique of the bunch but as you can tell from the title, things didn’t go so well.

The first sign warning sign that this day might not go so well was the day before we were to arrive when I heard the news that a fire at the Norte Dame Cathedral had destroyed a large portion of the church.  This was to be our first stop on “Le Grand Tour”.  The second jolt came when we were standing in Centraal Station in Amsterdam as I let my dad know that the surprise day trip was to Paris.  Not so much as anything remotely resembling any excitement.  He said “Paris huh?”, to which I replied “yup”.  “Eiffel Tower huh?”, to which I replied “yup”.  This was going to be great fun!!!

Three and a half hours later, we arrived at the hustle and bustle of Gare du Nord in Paris.  We had just started getting used to Amsterdam and all of its unique personality and now felt dropped into another world, one where English is not as common as where we had started our day.  First things first, dad needed to use the toilet and in Paris that means you have to pay, about € 0.50.  This was to me an opportunity to get rid of some loose change but to my dad…this was an outrage.

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Gare du Nord

Next up was a lesson on the Paris Metro.  My dad and I had mutually decided that we would try to use public transport rather than take the easy way and take an Uber or a hop on hop off bus.  In hindsight, this was a big mistake.  We were told that the Metro stop closest to Notre Dame was closed due to the fire the previous day so we needed to get off one stop early, which would have been fine if we had taken the train in the right direction to begin with.  It took one stop to realize we were going the wrong way and we expected a mistake or two during our visit to Paris so hopped off and then hopped on the correct train.  When we exited the dark Metro line and came up to the bright light above, I had no idea which way to go and had to use the compass app on my phone to figure out where Notre Dame was.  But all we really needed to do was to follow the crowds of people trying to see the aftermath of the previous days fire.  It was pure madness!  There were people everywhere, police everywhere, barricades everywhere, TV crews everywhere!  We glimpsed the famous yet damaged cathedral only from a distance and decided to head down to the Seine for a walk along the famous river to see the famous glass pyramid outside of the Louvre instead.

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The better side on Norte Dame
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Along the Seine

Along the Seine, we noticed a police boat directing tourist boats to turn around.  The apparent reason for this is that they had divers in the water possibly searching for a body.  My Dad had worked for years on the Brooklyn Bridge as an iron worker and had seen this sight many times before so we were fairly certain why they were there.  Although curious, we decided that seeing a body pulled from the river was not a memory we wanted of Paris so we continued on our walk to the Louvre.  Seeing the glass pyramid was great to see but perhaps the best part was seeing all of the people trying to take a picture with their finger touching the point of the pyramid, much like tourists who pretend that they are holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  What makes this fun to watch is to look at them pose for the picture from an angle that isn’t directly in line with the pyramid.  They look a bit like they’re having to act out the “I’m a little teapot” song.

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The Louvre

 

After leaving the Louvre,  it was on to an appointment with a guide at the Eiffel Tower.  This, I was really looking forward to.  The only thing that stood in our way was another ride on the Metro.  With some help from the ticket lady, we believed we had all the right information to get on the correct train, which we didn’t. This time, the train went the right way but instead of taking us the two stops to Champs du Mars and the Eiffel Tower, it went one stop and then turned right back around and deposited us back at the station we had just left.  I went back to the ticket lady and she scolded me because she had told me not to get on that train, but to take the second one.  She was right!  After receiving new instructions, we jumped onto the correct train this time and made it to our scheduled rendezvous (see I do speak French) with our Eiffel Tower guide and had barely ten minutes to spare.

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The Eiffel Tower is everything it’s advertised to be! It is strikingly beautiful and is unique to both the city and the world.  The problem is that everyone wants to go up this iconic tower and that is the only bad thing I have say about it.  The lines for the elevators are long even with a reservation and going all the way to the top was out of the question, since we were so pressed for time.  We had to get back to the train station for the last train back to Amsterdam, while having to fight the Paris rush hour to get there (or the Metro). This time there would be no more mistakes on the Metro, so Uber would battle traffic on our behalf and would take all of the drama with it away.  We made it back to Gare du Nord in plenty of time, enough even to get our first and only Parisian meal, Five Guys.  Admittedly, a Five Guys burger never tasted better!

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A few notes about Paris:

  1. My Dad described the city well when he said it was like New York City but where the people speak French.  It is a big city and has a chaotic feel to it, just like NYC.
  2. We were only there a few hours, you need a few days.
  3. Don’t try to see and do everything, there will never be enough time.
  4. Plant yourself in the most Parisian neighborhood you can find, friends tell me that Montmartre is that place.
  5. Riding the Metro was tough, I am sure you will do better.
  6. Walk wherever you can, cities are always best explored by foot and you really get a feel for Paris by walking.
  7. Learn at least a few words of French.  I worked on this for a couple of months, tried my limited vocabulary whenever the situation warranted, and had no negative interactions with any locals.  We have all heard the horror stories of how Americans can be treated in Paris and I witnessed none of it.  Be humble and attempt the language!

So it was an epic fail but maybe next time will be better!

 

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A Walk in Bruges

Arriving at the train station in Bruges, you get no hint of what a storybook city you’re about to enter.  The station is small and is packed with day-trippers (including us) from all over the Low Countries and beyond. My father and I were visiting from Amsterdam and took three different trains that morning just to get here and we were eager to breathe some fresh air and stretch our legs.  Following the pack from the station, we began to get our first glimpses of a city that can best be described as stunning.  After just a few minutes of walking, narrow cobblestone streets lead towards the city center and the Grote Market (or Market Square) where shops, architecture, and history all combine to make what has to be one of Europe’s most charming small cities.

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Along the way to the city center are beautiful church towers that loom large over the low lying buildings and shops of this medieval city.  Every step you take into Bruges, the sweet smells of chocolate and Belgian waffles start to assault your senses, especially if you’re hungry after the long train ride and the walk that follows. More on waffles after lunch.

The Belfry of Bruges has to be considered the signature landmark of the city.  This tower was featured prominently in the movie “In Bruges” where Brendan Gleeson met his demise. I desperately wanted to climb the staircase that he did to get up to what has to be the best view in Bruges.  The line for the tower was long and it took over an hour before I was allowed to start the climb up the tower through the narrow spiral staircase.   It took me nearly six minutes of climbing 366 steps to reach the top and I was rewarded with a mind blowing view of the market, the city of Bruges, and the West Flanders region of Belgium.  While at the top, a chorus of bells rang and only added to an already incredible atmosphere.

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DA364FD1-5043-4793-BED0-6F5B7672CC7CAfter the climb up the tower it was time for lunch in the square. There are many options for al fresco dining, which I do whenever possible. We were able to sit outside while drinking a flight of Belgian beers and eating Flemish stew, all the while taking in the sights and sounds of this thoroughly enjoyable city.

After lunch, we toured the canals by boat, which was a very different experience than the canal tour we had done in Amsterdam just days before.  Bruges’ canals are more narrow and intimate, so touring them was more up close and personal.

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235BF0ED-6D55-4677-B6DD-649C889734F0Before heading back to the train, it was of utmost importance to us to have a Belgian waffle…in Belgium.  The signature Belgian dessert is available all over the city and I don’t believe that you could pick the wrong one here.  The waffles are made to order so they are fresh and you have a wide variety of toppings to choose from.  I had mine with whipped cream and caramel.  My dad had his with whipped cream, strawberries, and a drizzle of chocolate.  Pure heaven as you can see from the photo.

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Souvenir requests from home mostly consisted of chocolate and there are shops everywhere.  Although I personally don’t really care much for the taste of chocolate, the sweet smells were everywhere.

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My advice to someone traveling to Bruges, linger as long as you can!

Tijuana : Searching for Tongue Tacos, Finding Trouble (Sort of)

I had read all of the US State Department warnings about Tijuana, Mexico and felt confident that if we stayed in certain areas and left before dark, we’d be fine.  My wife Kimberly and I like to do things just a little bit different and she had never been to this city. So on a trip to San Diego we thought that spending part of a day in Tijuana would make for an interesting day trip. Little did we know just how ‘interesting’ it would be!

We decided it would be best to leave our rental car in San Ysidro on the American side of the border and walk across to the Mexican side rather than deal with the traffic and challenges of driving in an unfamiliar foreign city.  I’m not even sure that taking the rental car into Mexico was permitted so we decided that a walk across the border was probably the smartest thing to do.  As soon as we exited Mexican customs, we passed soldiers armed with assault rifles, fingers on the triggers.  Ominous perhaps, but even (especially) in America we have heavily armed law enforcement present at border crossings and airports.

I had read about a place in the city called ‘Taco Alley’ that was reputed to have some of the best tacos in Tijuana and we wanted a taste for ourselves.  Anthony Bourdain had visited this collection of taco stands and raved about it and since it was close to lunchtime, we thought “why not?” So I used the navigation feature on my cell phone (first mistake) to help get us through the city to ‘Taco Alley’ without getting us lost or bumbling our way into a bad area.  When walking instead of driving, some cell phones have the navigation feature orient to the north rather than the direction of travel.  It took me an astonishingly long time to realize this and when I did, we were just outside of the Tijuana Brewery (somehow, I always end up at a brewery) and that was for once not my intended destination.  My phone has a feature to re-orient the map to the direction of travel and once I did that, we were able to start heading in the right direction.  So we crossed the street and just as we did a black four door sedan with very dark tinted windows pulled up right alongside of us. A man with an assault rifle jumped out of the front passenger side, just behind us.  The car sped off and we just kept walking, a mixture of part shock and part afraid to look behind us.  When we finally did, the guy with the assault rifle was gone!  Poof, just gone!  We have no idea where he went, if he was a soldier, a police officer, drug cartel, or a hunter (joke) but it rattled us. Maybe this is why we didn’t see any other Americans that day while we wandered all around the outer bounds of ‘touristy’ Tijuana?

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Boulevard Fundadores, where the man with the assault rifle jumped out of his car

Shockingly, after the incident with the gunman, we still made our way to ‘Taco Alley’ and I would say that we admittedly couldn’t be sure what had just happened.  Taco Alley was bustling with lots of lunchtime locals which gave us confidence that we had chosen wisely.  I had heard that something called lengua tacos were the best of the best so I ordered a couple.  My understanding was that a lengua taco was sort of like pot roast, which sounded amazing on a taco.  The meat was taken out of a drawer and quite honestly didn’t look too good but at this point there was no turning back.  They were so good!  It wasn’t until I returned home that I found out that lengua tacos are not pot roast tacos, they are tongue tacos!  I still to this day can’t believe that I ate a tongue taco, albeit unintentionally, but I’d do it again!  I now know that the meat that came out of the drawer was a giant tongue and that’s why it didn’t look like pot roast. Kimberly had the carnitas tacos and is still glad that she didn’t order what I did.

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Lots of color in TJ

After lunch, we slowly made our way back towards the tourist part of Tijuana near the border, stopping at restaurants along the way to have a beer or two while sitting outside at every opportunity. By far the best place we found to relax and have a drink was in the Plaza Santa Cecilia near the Tijuana Arch.  The area has a great vibe and has to be the most colorful area in the city.  It was the perfect place to unwind before going back across the border.

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The Tijuana Arch

Tijuana was definitely a unique experience although I would say that we never felt truly comfortable and safe.  Although the moment when the guy jumped out of the car with the rifle was unnerving, nothing bad actually happened to us while we were in the city and we now have a story to tell for years to come.  Maybe nothing bad happened to us because we were lucky, or maybe it just isn’t as bad as people told us it was. Either way, we left Tijuana unscathed, with stories to tell, and a new appreciation for how to use the navigation app on my phone.