Flirting with the Finer Things: Getting Posh in Paris

If there’s one word I’d use to describe Paris, it’s posh. The fashion capital of the world, a city dripping with gold and luxury, Paris is a place for the average Joe to flirt with the finer things. The finest restaurants, designers, hotels, wines–everything is fancier in Paris. While we were traveling on a budget, I still wanted us to have the full Parisian experience, so I worked some of that finery into our itinerary.

First up was a history-nerd stop at the Musee de l’Armee. The Museum houses a massive collection of military memorabilia, including the remains of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon’s fancy-ass casket is inside an enormous marble rotunda, with the skeletal remains of his horse suspended above it. Quite the pretentious digs to spend eternity in, but I think that was the point.

Next up was the Musee d’Orsay, which wound up being my favorite museum of the trip. Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh, Degas; their collection contains some of the finest pieces by the finest artists to ever have lived. Carey was moved to giddiness by Van Gogh’s Stary Night Over the Rhine, Olivia fell madly in love with Renoir, and the Monets literally made me cry. Seeing them up close, the color, the texture, the detail, was awe-inspiring. When we came to Van Gogh’s self portrait that was likely his last piece before committing suicide, we were all overcome with emotion. None of us are “art people,” but the extensive, stunning collection at the Musee d’Orsay certainly made us understand why some people are.

The downside to traveling with me is that I’m the pickiest eater you’ll ever meet (until you meet my oldest son), so finding a restaurant with something I’ll eat can be challenging. That was especially true in France, where the food isn’t at all to my taste. I wanted the girls to be able to experience French cuisine, but I also didn’t want to gag my way through every meal. Luckily, European restaurants have their menus posted outside, so we were able to read them before deciding whether or not to go in. We quickly found an adorable bistro with authentic French food and the most American thing in the world: hamburger and fries. Sold!

The main event in Paris is undoubtedly the Eiffel Tower, and we planned to do it right. You can probably guess how excited we were on the way there, all dressed up and ready to spoil ourselves from the top of the world. Once again, we were blown away by the enormity of the monument. We knew she was tall, but damn, it’s a long way to the top of Paris’ most famous landmark. Even the footprint of the tower was bigger than I expected.

We’d opted for the premium ticket option (highly recommend) that allowed us access to all three levels via elevator. We stopped first at the 2nd level with its viewing deck large enough to allow people space to maneuver around each other without too much crowding. We meandered all the way around, taking in the view and posing for what turned out to be laughably awful pictures by their overpriced photographers, before continuing to the top floor.

I’m claustrophobic and afraid of heights so I was concerned that the elevator ride would be similar to the one I took to the top of the St. Louis Arch (a tiny, cramped, egg-shaped capsule where I very nearly hyperventilated). The elevator wasn’t as small as I’d expected, but it was made of glass, which means watching the city fall farther and farther away the higher you ascend, so I was grateful I’d taken a Xanax on our way there. Once we got to the top I did alright, though I didn’t spend much time standing near the railing.

The view from the top of the Eiffel Tower is spectacular. The top viewing platform is significantly smaller than the lower levels (obviously), and it was a bit crowded (which weirdly made me feel safer), but there’s champagne, so. . . Is it ridiculously expensive? Of course. Was it worth it? Hell yes! A champagne toast atop the Eiffel Tower is the epitome of fancy! We sipped our champagne as we wandered around the platform, getting a full 360 degree view over the city. We saw Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur, even the mini Statue of Liberty on the River Seine. At one point my daughter said, “I’m so freaking happy right now!” and my heart swelled till I thought it would burst. This was why I wanted to bring my daughter to Paris. In that moment I knew we were both checking something off our bucket lists.

Once we’d finished our champagne, we decided it was time for more cocktails, so we headed back down to take some pictures and call another Uber. A Mercedes arrived to pick us up, which was fabulously appropriate given our destination was one of the swankiest, most luxurious joints in town: Bar Hemingway at The Hotel Ritz. In the early to mid 20th Century the Hotel Ritz was home to icons like Coco Chanel and Ernest Hemingway. The Nazis actually took over the hotel during their occupation of Paris in WWII, and the bartender (and several members of the hotel staff) became a spy to help the French Resistance. When Paris was liberated by Allied Forces Ernest Hemingway was the first American in the city (after essentially stealing a military vehicle), saying he was on his way to “liberate the cellar at the Hotel Ritz!” He did just that, then went on a multi-day bender to celebrate. The bar is now named in his honor, and it’s what I was most excited for in Paris.

We rolled up in our fancy ride and were greeted by the doorman with a posh-sounding, “Bonjour, mademoiselles,” before he graciously directed us to the bar, which was on the other side of the hotel. We were in awe as we gawked at the Versaci gowns, Cartier jewelry, and MacCallan Scotch on display along the luxurious hallways, and I had a keen sense of not belonging, like they’d kick us out if they saw I was wearing Old Navy pants. In my head I kept hearing, “So this is how the other half lives.”

Bar Hemingway itself is small and intimate, paneled in dark wood, with plush leather benches, and walls covered in Hemingway memorabilia and books. We were escorted to a tiny table, and provided with cucumber water and little bowls of chips, nuts, and olives. To give you an idea of how swanky it is, their signature drink is a Ritz Sidecar, which is made with cognac from the 19th Century, and costs almost $2000. I couldn’t even afford to lick the damn glass, much less fathom the kind of wealth required to think nothing of spending that much on a single cocktail. Throwing down $45 per drink was hard enough, and took weeks of saving to accomplish. But when the cocktails arrived with fresh-cut white roses, and tasted absolutely divine, it was entirely worth it! Elegant, refined and classy, just like I’d planned our evening to be.

We savored each sip, and were having way too much fun to leave, so we decided to order a second cocktail. It was about half way through drink number two (three if you count the earlier glass of champagne) when the strength of the drinks, and the fact that we hadn’t eaten a meal since lunch became apparent. We were beginning to go from classy and refined to boisterous and goofy.

We thought we’d spend 45 minutes to an hour at Bar Hemingway. We ended up staying for three hours, six bowls of chips, and a friendly conversation with the rich, honeymooning couple from Manhattan at a nearby table. The entire experience was exceptional, and when another Mercedes arrived to take us back to our AirBnb it was the perfect end to our night of fanciness.

We needed dinner when we got back to Suresnes so we decided to order some more McDonald’s, which felt strangely comforting after a night of unusual finery. There’s just nothing more average-American than a burger and fries from Mickey D’s. However, I’d be remiss to not mention that their “Chicken Big Tasty” was neither big nor tasty, and the Croque McDo ought to be re-named the Croque McDon’t. If there’s one thing America does better than France it’s fast food, though I’m not sure that’s something we should necessarily take pride in.

We watched the Eiffel Tower’s Twinkle Show again before bed, and, like each night of our trip, we were exhausted and fell soundly asleep within moments of our heads hitting our pillows. Our posh day in Paris had been pure magic, and we still had more finery to come. Stop by next week to read about our next day in Paris, complete with a fancy-schmancy dinner cruise on the River Seine. In the meantime, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

From Buongiorno to Bonjour: Our First Taste of Paris

Paris, the City of Lights. My daughter Olivia, like most young women, had long dreamed of going to Paris. She loves French fashion, French culture, the French language (she even minored in French in college), and was dying to try real French cuisine and wine. Her excitement as we went to the airport for our flight to Paris was both palpable and contagious. Her dream was finally coming true! Rome had been wonderful, but it was time to trade our buongiornos for bonjours!

Going from the US to Italy to France in a matter of a few days gave me a kind of linguistic whiplash. Though I don’t speak French or Italian, I at least know how to greet people, and say please and thank you. But I’d just gotten used to doing that in Italian, and now had to switch from buongiorno to bonjour, and grazie to merci, which made all my interactions somewhat clumsy and awkward. Liv and Carey, however, after both taking French for years, were totally in their element. Liv was able to tell the cab driver where our AirBnb was located, and even make small talk with her, completely in French. I was très impressed.

Paris is so expensive. Being that this was my college graduation gift to my daughter, I wanted it to be special, and for her to have the full Parisian experience, but I was also trying to accomplish this without blowing our entire budget in one city. So, when I found a three bedroom flat on AirBnb with two bathrooms, a terrace, and a balcony overlooking the Eiffel Tower, that was within our budget, I was ecstatic. Located in the suburb of Suresnes, just outside the city, and only a block from a metro station in a quiet residential neighborhood, we felt we had really scored. What I didn’t know when I booked it was that our host, Anis, was a douche. He left us waiting on the sidewalk outside the building for 2 hours, and kept commenting on how inconvenient a time it was for us to arrive.

We decided to get some lunch while we waited. Since we weren’t sure how much time we had before Anis would grace us with his presence, and we had all our luggage with us, we didn’t want to stray too far. Luckily there was a McDonald’s just a couple blocks away, so while I manned the luggage, Olivia and Carey went to a French Mickey D’s and brought back a little taste of home. In case you’ve ever wondered, yes, it tastes exactly the same no matter what country you’re in. I’m usually more of an Arby’s gal, but damn was it delicious! The familiarity of a McDonald’s burger and fries was oddly comforting as we sat on a French sidewalk surrounded by suitcases.

After we’d finished our literal French fries, Anis finally arrived and let us into the flat. He gave us a tour, told us not to open any closets or cabinets that had been taped shut (weird, but okay), and left, which was a relief. I got a weird vibe from him, but we were grateful to be in Paris, in a spacious flat where we each had our own room, and were ready to get exploring already.

After we’d gotten cleaned up we took an Uber into the city to our first destination. Built to honor the soldiers who fought in the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, the Arc de Triomphe is one of the most famous monuments in France. It was constructed in the early 19th Century and inaugurated in 1836, and it’s so Parisian! While we’d planned to go inside the Arc, it was seemingly under construction (actually being prepped for an art installation, we later learned), so after taking a few pictures we headed down the Champs Élysées towards the Place de la Concorde.

The Champs Élysées was exactly as I’d imagined it would be. A wide boulevard, exceptionally clean for a busy city street, lined with manicured trees and swanky shops, and populated by some of the best dressed (and most attractive) humans I’d ever seen. The girls were absolutely giddy. Though I felt a bit out of place in my cheap-ass outfit, being an overweight middle-aged woman also made me feel somewhat invisible, which really took the pressure off. I was an observer, a facilitator of fun for my daughter and her best friend, and I was loving it.

The Place de la Concorde, my history nerd stop of the day as I’ll explain in a moment, is a large, open square (the largest in Paris) on the western side of the Tuileries Garden. With two fountains, an obelisk, and gold galore, it’s quite a sight to see. The gold that adorns just about everything in the square was all glowing and radiant in the early evening sun, and the effect was luminous. While Rome had been filled with ancient historical ruins, Paris was absolutely dripping with opulence.

Alright, time for a very brief history lesson. After centuries of being ruled by kings and queens the French citizens were tired of suffering at the hands of out-of-touch, lavish-living monarchs, and decided enough was enough. During the ensuing French Revolution thousands of people were executed by guillotine, including, in 1793 during the Reign of Terror, King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie-let-them-eat-cake-Antoinette. The infamous contraption had been set up in the Place de la Concorde (then called the Place de la Revolution), and a plaque now marks the spot where the guillotine once stood. We admired the fountains and the obelisk, somehow resisting the urge to jump in the fountains (it was still 90 degrees), and paid our “respects” to Marie Antoinette by way of parodying her execution. We then decided it was time to get to Sacré Coeur before sunset, so we called another Uber.

Sacré Coeur, a Roman Catholic church, is perched on the highest spot in Paris’ Montmartre neighborhood, and overlooks the entire city. In addition to a spectacular view of Paris, the people-watching was fantastic. There were couples displaying more PDA than I’d seen since a middle school dance; couples enjoying classic French picnics, complete with baguette, wine, and pâté; people walking their dogs; others taking pictures; and plenty of entrepreneurs hocking beer and water to them all. We sat on the steps among Parisians and our fellow tourists, watching the people, and admiring the sky while its color changed from blue, to orange, to pink, to a deep purple as the sun finally dipped below the horizon. Perfection.

Once the sun went down we called another Uber and drove back to Suresnes. We were all pretty tired so we decided to order dinner in. Pizza isn’t something one generally associates with France, so it felt weird ordering one, but that’s exactly what we did. Not their specialty. Because we were so hungry the first few bites were fine, but then we started actually tasting it. Turns out, French cheese just doesn’t work on pizza. Lesson learned.

Our dinner may have been a bust, but our view was positively enchanting. We finished our evening on the balcony watching the Eiffel Tower “Twinkle Show.” Beginning at dusk and going until 1:00am, every hour on the hour, the tower begins to twinkle with thousands upon thousands of lights. It’s absolutely magical, and we were enthralled. What a perfect way to end our first day in Paris!

This trip was all I’d hoped it would be. To finally get to see Rome after decades of dreaming was incredible, but to be able to see the pure joy on my daughter’s face as she walked the streets of Paris with her best friend was everything. Hearing them laugh, seeing their smiles, feeling their excitement, gave me a sense of immeasurable satisfaction. We all want to give our kids the world. As a single mom living paycheck to paycheck that can be challenging. This trip was a big deal for me. I saved and made sacrifices for more than a year to make it happen. I wanted it to be epic, special, a memory she would cherish as she begins her new life on her own, an experience to make up for having to share a bedroom with her little brothers, for all the nights I’d only been able to afford Kraft mac-n-cheese, for the years I couldn’t afford Christmas or birthday presents. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a vacation, but as I watched the delight in her eyes as the Eiffel Tower sparkled in the distance I knew this trip was the treasure I’d intended. My daughter and her bestie were glowing. Mission accomplished! And we still had three more days in Paris before moving on to our next destination!

Be sure to come back next week to read about our first full day in Paris, a luxurious day filled with museums of fine art, champagne atop the Eiffel Tower, and cocktails at The Hotel Ritz! Till then, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

Take Me to Church: Three Audacious Atheists Visit the Vatican

I struggled for months with whether or not to visit the Vatican. I am, after all, a pastor’s daughter-turned-atheist, so being inside the Mothership of Catholicism doesn’t exactly sound like my jam. But the home of the Holy See houses the largest privately owned collection of art in the entire freaking world, including Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. The Church has also, in large part, shaped the path of the western world for more than 1500 years. Less so now than, say, 400 years ago, thank God (pun intended), but it’s impossible to separate Christian history from European history–which is totally my jam. However, the Vatican amassed their enormous collection of priceless art through centuries of widespread greed, corruption, plunder and slaughter, and they ran (run?) the largest pedophile syndicate in all of documented history, so. . . yeah. I struggled.

In the end I decided that I’d be contributing to the preservation of the art and history, not the Ring of Rapists, and our one-time $20 donation wouldn’t go far in the grand scheme of things, anyway. So, the Mother, the Daughter, and the Bestie ventured into the inner sanctum of et Patris, et Fili, et Spiritus Sancti (Amen).

Now, about that history. . .

Notorious Roman Emperor Caligula, in the 1st Century CE, began building a massive circus (think chariots, not clowns). However, Caligula was a super shitty emperor (rumor has it also a sadistic, incestuous, nymphomaniac), so his own men murdered him after he’d reigned for a mere 4 years, leaving his circus unfinished. Enter Nero, the villain of early Christianity who, upon completing Caligula’s circus, promptly took all the credit and named it the Circus of Nero.

In CE 64 about a third of the city was destroyed in the Great Fire of Rome. As usual, people wanted someone to blame, so Nero gave them one: adherents of a strange new cult who worshiped only one god, and had earned the nickname (derogatory at the time) “Christians.” Given the absence of modern investigative and forensic tools to reveal how, or at whose hands, the fire actually started, scapegoating the folks his subjects were already suspicious of must’ve felt like a no-brainer to a ruler who just wanted to restore order to a city teetering on anarchy. To placate the throngs of angry Romans, Nero’s soldiers started targeting and executing Christians (by crucifixion, as they’re infamous for doing), and the primary spot used for the executions was–that’s right–the Circus of Nero.

The bodies of the alleged arsonists were laid to rest in a cemetery right next to the Circus, including that of the most famous of Nero’s victims, one of the men credited with founding The Church, Peter the Apostle. St Peter’s Basilica is suposedy built over his grave, and the sprawling complex of palaces, gardens, offices, chapels, residences and museums has been built up around it over the ensuing centuries to give us what is now the independent city-state called The Vatican.

There’s one piece of the original circus left, and that’s the obelisk at the center of St Peter’s Square. Not a Christian relic at all, but a pagan one, Caligula looted the obelisk from Egypt way back in the early 1st Century CE. I can’t even tell you how hilarious I found it to be standing in the epicenter of the Christian world, neighborhood of the Pope, burial place of a dude who purportedly walked with Jesus Christ himself, and staring at looted, pagan booty. See, guys? History is fun!

More than the paintings and sculptures, or artifacts and relics, the rooms themselves were incredible, especially the ceilings. The Sistine Chapel doesn’t have the only magnificent ceiling inside the Vatican. Others are just as spectacular, and many are covered in gold. So. Much. Gold. Despite their beauty, I kept wondering, “Y’all sure this is what Jesus had in mind?

Through the entire museum, room after room, gold ceiling after gold ceiling, I was amused by the juxtaposition of a hippie like Jesus, who reportedly said it was, “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God,” (Matthew 10:25 NLT) with the obscene wealth that now oozes from the seat of the church founded in his name. If they melted down all the gold in the Vatican they could single-handedly end homelessness for millions of displaced persons, which, let’s be honest, is what Jesus would do. Yet there I was, walking under gilded ceilings and surrounded by art that’s worth more than the GDP of most nations. “Seriously though, you guys even read his work?

Confessing nearly 44 years worth of sins was a lengthy endeavor. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. How much time you got?”

After the museums we headed to St Peter’s Basilica, stopping for souvenirs along the way. Another building that would be far too ostentatious for Jesus’ liking, it’s basically a massive marble and gold testament to the ingenuity, artistry and power of man. If the builders and architects wanted visitors to feel small and insignificant under the eyes of God, they nailed it. The giant atop Jack’s beanstalk wouldn’t even need to duck his head to walk into St Peter’s Basilica.

St Peter’s tomb is at the front of the sanctuary near the high altar. The above ground marker is a massive bronze and gilded baldachin by Bernini that is absolutely stunning. While I may be an atheist, the history nerd in me was beside herself to be potentially standing over the grave of yet another pivotal historical figure.

The most magnificent part of the entire basilica, as far as I’m concerned, is, hands down, Michelangelo’s Pieta. WOW! There’s a reason he’s considered a master. The emotion on Mary’s face, the realistic lifelessness of Jesus, the detail of every inch of them. . . and just knowing that before my eyes was a piece of marble carved by Michel-freaking-angelo was overwhelming. I felt the anguish of a mother who’d lost her child, and I actually cried. My daughter made fun of me, but this wouldn’t be the last time Renaissance art moved me to literal tears.

The least intimidating looking security of all time: the Swiss Guard.

As we left the Basilica the girls did an impromptu impersonation of the Swiss Guard, after which we fled before getting arrested at spear-point, tried for heresy, and burned as witches. We then found a shady spot in St Peter’s Square to sit down, relax and enjoy the day. While the museum had been crowded the square was relatively empty. I’m sure there were an equal number of people in both places, but the square is so enormous and open that it felt nearly deserted. We all FaceTimed with family, I smoked a cigarette, and we spent an hour just chilling and soaking everything in. We listened to the bells tolling from the basilica, watched as traditionally dressed priests, monks and nuns passed by, and I tended to my blisters. A lovely respite before continuing with our day of sightseeing.

Swiss Guard Imitation Vatican
Olivia and Carey imitating the Swiss Guard, but in less ridiculous outfits

Though we’d taken a taxi to the Vatican, we walked back in order to see some sights along the way, the first of which was Castel Sant’Angelo. Originally built in the 2nd Century CE as a tomb for Emperor Hadrian, history has seen it used as a prison, and even a papal hideout during the Sack of Rome in 1527. While primarily German and Spanish troops pillaged the city, Pope Clement VII fled down the Passetto di Borgo, a secret passage that connects the Vatican to the castle, and remained there until the troops finally exhausted the city’s resources and left. Not exactly one to lead by example, that Pope, but before he died he did commission Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, so he’s not without his contributions to posterity.

We admired the castle, then crossed the Ponte Sant’Angelo and continued walking along the Tiber until we reached the Mausoleum of Augustus. The building itself, like the Castel Sant’Angelo, was austere and imposing, but had lost most of its decorative detail to the ravages of time, and was visually unimpressive. We sadly weren’t able to go inside, but I did take a moment to pay my respects to the superstars of history entombed within: the entire Julio-Claudian Dynasty, starting with Augustus and Livia, and going all the way to Caligula, Nero, and finally Nerva. Some bad, some badass, all part of the history that shaped Western Civilization.

After I’d paid my respects it was time for some more gelato, and to head back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. As we walked, we passed Trajan’s Market, the Altar of the Fatherland, and a statue of Julius Caesar. One of my favorite parts of Rome is that, no matter which way you turn, there’s probably something fun around the next corner.

That evening, as we savored our final dinner in Rome (best steak I’ve ever had), we decided we greatly prefer the European style of dining to the American way. Dinner is an event, and it anchored us each evening. The waiters are always nearby, ready to help, but they don’t bug you. No loud music to impede conversation, no interruptions to ask if you’re enjoying your meal, no rushing you along to free up their table. Instead, we were able to enjoy leisurely, relaxed meals that allowed us to decompress, reflect on the day, and really connect with one another. I can’t begin to say how refreshing an experience that is when you’re used to places like sports bars or Olive Garden.

Rome had been as magical as I’d always dreamed, and although we were sad to leave, we knew we still had a week and a half of European adventures still to come. Stay tuned for the next installment when we trade the narrow, cobblestone streets of Ancient Rome for the wide avenues and posh luxury of Paris! Until then, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.