As I look to my right, I see cute, small houses next to the train tracks. Not long ago, I boarded my train in Basel, a city on the Rhine River in northwest Switzerland, en route to Berlin, Germany, where I’ll be for the next few days. Traveling through Europe by train has been the perfect change of pace to a surprisingly restful week in Europe, a far cry from the hustle-and-bustle of Manhattan and Brooklyn and the exhausting experience that is flying through JFK.
Paris was, in one word, beautiful. I was staying in the southern tip of the Latin Quarter, in Les Gobelins, in a hostel called—and I’m really not kidding—“Oops!” Unlike Brooklyn Heights and the DUMBO area, a surprisingly charming neighborhood where the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Bridge can be found that completely surprised me in terms of how much I enjoyed being there, Paris was actually about what I expected—in the most magical ways. I thought it would be much more hectic given that it was Christmas, after all. But after coming from New York City, I don’t know if anywhere can feel as hectic and overpopulated.
Side note about Les Gobelins: there were a bunch of giant teddy bears dotted throughout Les Gobelins—on benches, on the metro, and even in storefront windows! That’s why the featured image at the top of this post is me next to a bunch of bears…
My first full day in Paris was Christmas Day, which began with a short metro ride from Les Gobelins to Montmartre, where the Sacre-Cœur Basilica was. That morning was actually the cutest morning in Paris, bringing me my favorite memories of Paris: Getting off the station, my friend and I began walking our way through Montmartre to look for Sacre-Cœur. Because it was Christmas morning, the streets were quiet. Fat pigeons—and I do really mean fat… the pigeons here are really quite plump—followed us on our walk through the streets, as the basilica began to appear in the distance. I hadn’t eaten yet, and I ended up stumbling upon a small bakery on a random street not too far from the train station; I bought a slice of quiche lorraine and an espresso, as older French women went in to buy baguettes and pastries.
Even just eating my quiche and drinking my espresso on a bench nearby felt serene. (It helped that the quiche was delicious.) It didn’t totally feel like Christmas, but there was a certain simple magic to it that I hadn’t experienced in a while, especially since being a student at Stanford is just stressful all the time. Christmas Mass at Montmartre started less than an hour later, where one of the cardinals was presiding over it. I haven’t gone to a Catholic Mass in the longest time—maybe since last Christmas?—since I’ve started attending non-denominational Protestant services in the Episocopal style at Memorial Church at Stanford, but even though those church services look nearly the exact same as a Catholic Mass since Anglicanism/Episcopalianism isn’t really all that different, the universal, repetitive nature of Catholic Masses were of comfort since it was in French, a language I don’t understand.
Ironically but unsurprisingly, Sacre-Cœur was much more hectic than the rest of Montmartre that morning, but even as we were leaving the Montmartre area a little past noon, it was clear that people were just beginning to walk around. Even a few stores were beginning to open, which seemed odd to me given that it was both the early afternoon and Christmas Day.
Jardin des Tuileries
The next stop after Mass was the Tuileries Garden. My friend and I wanted to go to Angelina for lunch, partially because it was one of the places that we knew for sure would be open on Christmas Day. I was surprised that the wait for a table was only about five minutes, and even when we went back the next day to try the full brunch menu there was only a very short wait.
My friend and I had taken a weekly French cooking class at Stanford in the fall before we came to Paris, one of the most sought-after, “must-take” classes at Stanford—behind social dance and wine tasting. (I took social dance my freshman year and absolutely loved it, and wine tasting—along with beer tasting—is on my list of classes I’m planning to fight for a spot for when I return to Stanford in my senior year.) I went in with pretty realistic and achievable goals—I wanted to be able to crack an egg, which I can say that I pretty definitely achieved, especially after making shakshuka in my house’s kitchen with the Israel Fellow at Stanford! But I think more valuable than the recipes was actually just being exposed to different staples of French cuisine: one of those being the croque madame.
The instructor for French cooking was actually another Stanford junior, who himself had spent a good amount of time in France and spent a summer at Le Cordon Bleu. While in New York, I messaged him on Facebook to get restaurant recommendations, and Angelina was on the list! I had actually been there once with my family the last time I went to Paris—when I was about nine years old—and I just remember that the hot chocolate was to die for. This time around, because I hadn’t eaten, I went straight for the croque madame, and luckily the hot chocolate there is so rich that my friend and I were able to just split one serving. There’s more bread and less cheese than I would’ve liked—compare the first picture of the croque madame at Angelina with the second picture of a croque madame that I had on my last evening in Paris to see what I mean. It was a little pricey, but it was good enough to make us want to come back the next day for the full brunch course.
Christmas Market & Champs-Élysées
Full from our surprisingly large meal, we wandered into Tuileries Garden, where there was a Christmas market happening. And what better time to go to a Christmas market than on Christmas? I had heard so much about Christmas markets—one of the staff members in my house at Stanford studied abroad in Berlin last year, and he mentioned that I should definitely check out the European Christmas markets—that I didn’t know exactly what to expect. It felt a bit like a bazaar of sorts, with people selling everything from hot fried foods to jewelries and scarves. I decided to treat myself to chaud vin, mildly-spiced hot wine, usually thought to only be for special occasions but I think Christmas in Paris certainly counts. (I didn’t actually like it all that much—I prefer normal-temperature wine, actually—and if I went to a different Christmas market, I think I would’ve preferred just getting a hot cider.)
I didn’t realize the Christmas market was really close to the Louvre, too, which was a great surprise. It was closed for Christmas, but that didn’t make the area surrounding it any less pretty. If anything, it was probably even prettier because fewer people were in the area! From the Louvre, we walked down Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe. There were a few notable things: first, there was a Franklin D. Roosevelt Avenue and Station—it used to be named after an Italian king because Italy was an ally of France in World War I, but when fascist Italy (and the king) ended up aligning with Nazi Germany in World War II, the French decided to rename it after Franklin D. Roosevelt, the American president who allied with the French during the Second World War.
Second was that some of the windows of the storefronts were actually partially shattered. I’m pretty sure this was a result of some of the yellow-jacket protests in Paris that had been taking place in Paris every weekend since the end of November. These demonstrations were because of French dissatisfaction over inequality, as my Uber driver told me, and raising of the gas tax that affects mostly the lower and middle classes. Because these protests connected themselves to the French Revolution—yet another uprising over inequality in French society—yellow-jacket protestors marched down Champs-Élysées and to the Arc de Triomphe, a very clear call-back to the French Revolution itself.
If anything, that was the thing I found most interesting about Paris: its connection to its history. It felt like I was constantly stumbling on sites from the French Revolution—from Notre Dame, which was sacked, pillaged, and transformed into a Temple of Reason during the ban on Catholicism; to the Jardin des Tuilieres, which is what is left of the old Tuileries Palace that was burned down in 1871 and was, back in 1789, the holding place for the Royal Family before they were executed; to the Place de la Concorde, where Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were executed by guillotine.
Lately, I’ve been particularly interested in revolutionary histories (of both the left and the right), especially after spending the last quarter at Stanford studying the Spanish Civil War—where fascist dictator Francisco Franco led a coup of the democratically-elected socialist government of Spain—in the Spanish class I was taking. I never took a European history class—only world history was offered in my high school, and I am so glad I took that class seriously (to the point where I did 180 hours of extra credit for it in second semester of senior year), so a lot of my learning about the French Revolution, one of the most foundational moments that set up the world we live in today, has been both drawing from my own history education and researching more about the different places that I’ve been stumbling upon. This connection to history certainly isn’t unique to Paris—tomorrow, I’ll be doing a walking tour of Berlin with my brother’s bone marrow donor, and I’ll be studying at the oldest university in the English-speaking world for the next few months (Oxford).
I’m currently off to my third country on this Grand Tour of Europe: Germany. Geneva, Switzerland, was beautiful, and being there made me think really hard about how I would maybe want to work for the United Nations one day, which I think would really fit the global character of my interests—I am an anthropology major, after all. France too was wonderful, and I’ll actually be returning to Paris for a weekend before I head to Oxford; that weekend will be a bit more about R&R and writing since I’ll be mostly alone, although I’ll be meeting a friend or two from Stanford before they officially start their winter quarters in Paris. On the theme of meeting friends, completely by chance, my trip to Paris overlapped with a different friend from Stanford, who lived in my freshman dorm with me! Since she studies classics, she’s here for a Latin program until the school year starts again. (It was actually with her that I had the other croque madame that I posted here!)
I am going to be continuing to eat and drink (more of the former, less of the latter) my way through Europe—in Berlin, London, and Paris (again) before a much longer three-month stint in the United Kingdom… which is still in Europe as much as it seems to not want to be! It turns out that I won’t have completely used my Eurail pass—I’ll have about one or two days left of train travel on it—so you can bet that I’m going to try to escape the United Kingdom at least once in Germany to reach the mainland.
At the same time as I’m gearing up for three months at Oxford, I’ve also been preparing for the following three months in Santiago, between buying plane tickets and having to update my resume to be considered for internships and volunteer opportunities. I recently heard back from the director of the Stanford in Oxford program about the Spanish directed reading I’ll be taking, so now I know who my tutor will be; I’m excited to be seriously devoting myself to language learning again, something I knew has been important to me since high school. As a side note, my time in France and Switzerland has made me even consider the possibilty of studying French on top of Spanish—French, of course, is the other key language of international politics (other than English), so who knows? It’d fit the UN theme, too!
Until next time!