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December 24, 2001
Paris: like tourists (Russell)

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The view from the tower of Notre-Dame

We had spent most of the day on December 20th indoors, while outside Paris boasted sunshine and blue skies.  On December 21st, our plans called for outside activities, and unfortunately we awoke to bitter cold and gray overcast.  Nevertheless, we bundled ourselves up and stepped out.  We bought "Paris Visite" cards, which would enable us to take unlimited transit rides for the next five days, and boarded the métro.

Our first stop, at the request of the boys, was the Eiffel Tower (or as Joss described it in his journal, the "I fell to where").  We descended the métro at Champ de Mars and walked a couple of blocks to the 320 metre tower.  (Russell had to lie on his back in order to get the whole thing into his camera viewfinder.  A French tourist was so impressed that she asked him to lie on his back to take a picture with her camera too.)  Joss wanted to ride all the way to the top and Gail didn't want to set foot on it at all.  So we compromised and bought tickets to the second platform, halfway up.  (Actually, we only needed to buy two tickets -- a nearby Chinese tour group had two extras and gave them to Russell -- the closest they could find to a felloww countryman.)  It was freezing cold, and Gail had a difficult time letting go of the girder, but we stayed up there long enough to have lunch at the café.  We finished off by walking across the Seine River to the Place du Trocadéro, where we got a great view of the tower at the Palais de Chaillot.

The next stop in our quest to realize that we were truly in Paris was the Arc de Triomphe -- the world's largest roundabout -- at the end of the Champs-Élysées.  Cameron was particularly interested in seeing this because he had learned about it in school -- the Nazis marched through it when they seized Paris at the beginning of World War II, and Charles De Gaulle marched through it when Paris was liberated at the end.

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Americans in Paris: the Eiffel Tower (taken by Russell lying on his back) and the Arc de Triomphe

It was at about this time that the boys reminded us that they are only good for about four hours of touring a day before they completely melt down.  Russell still had a few Christmas errands to run, so Gail very bravely -- and successfully -- led the boys back home.  (This involved boarding the correct métro, getting off at the correct stop, finding the correct street exit, and navigating the ten-minute walk back to the apartment -- not easy when you don't speak French.)

On the next day, December 22nd, there was a compromise in the weather -- it was sunny, but still freezing cold.  Today we descended from the metro at Châtelet in the 1st arrondisement -- the heart of Paris.  From here we walked to the Île de le Cité, an island in the center of the Seine River that was once the Roman town of Lutetia in 3 BC.  Today the Île de le Cité is the site of two extraordinary churches, and we got to see them both.

Sainte-Chapelle ("holy chapel") was completed in 1248 under Louis IX (St. Louis) to house his collection of holy relics, which supposedly included the Crown of Thorns and the skull of John the Baptist.  Today the church is hidden in the middle of the Palais de Justice; but in the upper chapel, 50-foot high stained glass windows still depict some 1,134 different scenes.  (As a sign of the times, we had to pass ourselves and our backpacks through metal detectors before we were allowed in.  Joss set off the alarms, and when we emptied his pockets we discovered that he had scrounged a six-inch iron hook from somewhere.  The guards decided that he was mostly harmless and let him keep it.)

Ste-Chapelle was built in three years, while it took almost 200 years to complete the Cathédrale Notre Dame, two blocks away.  Notre-Dame was as massive as Ste-Chapelle was delicate, but unfortunately both the Treasury and North Tower were closed today.

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Two churches: Sainte-Chapelle and Notre-Dame

We hadn't quite exhausted the boys' four-hour limit, so we crossed the Seine to the rive gauche (left bank) and the Quartier Latin.   We walked around long enough for the boys to get cold and tired, then headed back.  (We were going to board the métro at St-Michel, but it was being held up by some kind of demonstration.  We walked back to Châtelet.)

Our last destination for the day was a regrettable quick stop for groceries at Auchan, a large grocery store at La Grande Arche de La Défense near our apartment.  We needed a few things for upcoming meals that we couldn't find at the mini-marchés.  Unfortunately, we hit the supermarket at mid-afternoon on the Saturday before Christmas.  It ended up taking us more than one hour in line to purchase our $25 worth of groceries.  (Our patience was not helped when a family ahead of us realized that they hadn't brought enough money.  They had to go through their rung-up receipts and remove items one by one.)  We had promised the boys a short day and it ended up being our longest.  Fortunately, we still had time in the evening to wrap presents, which made everyone feel a whole lot better.

December 23rd was back to being gray and freezing, so we combined indoor and outdoor activities.  One of the most wonderful things about the Paris métro is that no matter where you exit, you have the feeling of emerging from a dark hole into an absolutely breathtaking view.  Today we emerged at the Place de la Concorde, considered one of the best designed city crossroads in the world -- the Champs-Élysée and the Arc de Triomphe are on one side, and the Jardins des Tuileries and the Musée du Louvre are on the other.

We decided that with a four-hour touring tolerance, we wouldn't be able to do justice to the Louvre.  Instead, we opted for the smaller Musée d'Orsay, which features Impressionist and Expressionist art from Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, and Degas.  (Russell personally prefers the Orsay -- you can put yourself inches away from the paintings, as opposed to the 20-foot distances required to view the works in the Louvre).  We walked through the Jardins des Tuileries, where the boys amused themselves by kicking a rock the entire way and watching the pigeons walk on the frozen surface of the fountain.

The Musee d'Orsay turned out to be just right for the boys.  Cameron developed very strong opinions about what he likes and doesn't like: he prefers sculpture to painting, marble to bronze, and doesn't like looking at unclothed figures in any form.  Joss was especially fascinated by Monet's Impressionist paintings; back at the apartment he made several pictures using the new techniques he had learned.  Remembering yesterday's overly aggressive schedule, we decided against going to the Centre Georges Pompidou (the single most popular attraction in Paris) and instead bought the boys new sweatpants at Samaritaine.

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At the Orsay Museum

By December 24th, our last touring day in Paris, we were running out of time to see everything.  The boys voted to bypass Montmartre in favor of returning to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame to climb the North Tower.  The half-hour wait in line (it even started raining) and 387-step climb were well worth the end result, although Gail had a difficult time letting go of the scaffolding.  We reached the top just at 12:00 noon and got to hear the bell peal.  We were nose-to-nose with countless gargoyles, had an incredible view of Paris, and got to see the bell itself.  On the other hand, the excursion left the adults in less-than-ideal shape -- Gail's knee flared up, and Russell had a mild bout of hypothermia.  [Note to family: we are fine now.]

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Among the Gargoyles of Notre-Dame

Although we could easily have spent another week in Paris, we were relaxed and non-hurried in the knowledge that we will be back here again in April, when we return our leased car.  Gail especially is looking forward to "Paris in the Springtime."


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