La Fête Nationale in Paris

A trip to France is not complete without visiting Paris! We had a four day weekend because of La Fête Nationale (also known as Bastille Day to the non-French), so a bunch of us met to celebrate! Brian, Rachel and I went from Lyon, Andy from Pau, and Carlos actually came from his internship in Italy! 

Our quick two hour train ride brought us to the Gare de Lyon (haha yes, a place called Lyon in Paris!) and we excitedly went to check out the city. We saw the beautiful Place des Vosges and picked up huge pastries – maxi pain au chocolat. Whoever came up with the idea of a pastry with yummy chocolate goodness inside is great, but the one who decided to make huge, jumbo ones is even better. Yum! 

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Then we went to check out the modern and contemporary art at the Centre Pompidou. Unfortunately I am not cultured enough to comment on the quality or profoundness of the art, but I still really enjoyed and appreciated it!

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Sacré-Cœur was so majestic. We climbed up to the top and got a good view of… gray buildings… Honestly the view was disappointing compared to the colours and unique roofs from our previous travels, but it was cool to get our first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower!

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Recently the all the locks attached to one of the bridges, the Pont des Arts, were cut off because they weighed so much that they were weakening the bridge. We didn’t see that specific bridge, but the Pont Neuf had plenty of love locks! The Jardin du Luxembourg was a great place for a peaceful break, underneath the shade of trees (even palm trees!).

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For dinner, we met up with other MIT students. Daniel, an intern in Paris, suggested we meet at the Crêperie Josselin for a good meal. There were several other creperies in the area, right next to each other, but this restaurant was the only one with a line. A long, long line. We ended up waiting about 45 minutes for a table of 8. But it was so worth it! The crepes were huge, stuffed with meats, cheeses, and whatever else you wanted. For dessert, they had a variety of sweeter crepes – some of the others got one with rum, and the server used a lighter to burn away the alcohol. Afterwards we walked along the Seine river, enjoying the night view of the city.

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The next day we hit up the Champs-Élysées. We, of course, sang the song the whole way. And by we, I mean mostly me. We saw the Arc de Triomphe, and couldn’t help but take the classic tourist photos. It was hilarious to see others trying similar poses, but I couldn’t even blame them since we did the same. There were inscriptions carved in stone on the ground that explained the history (in French).

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Jaywalking across the street was super risky – there is a roundabout, and it seems like the cars never end, but we did it anyway. People looked at us like we were crazy. Once we got back on the Champs-Élysées, we stopped by Ladurée for its famous macarons. Did you know there is a difference between macarons and macaroons? I didn’t. Quite embarrassing. But anyway. Pistachio macarons are great. 2 euro a pop, though! There is also the largest and most ridiculous Abercrombie & Fitch store. It was enormous. There was a tall gate, a full lawn, and so many dark, heavily-perfumed floors. It was almost artistic. Luckily we saw real art at Le Petit Palais, which hosts the Musée des Beaux-Arts. Beautiful paintings, sculptures, and murals.

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We then went to the Musée d’Orsay, a beautiful museum with Impressionist art including works from  Monet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, and Van Gogh. The pieces were gorgeous.

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We stumbled upon La Madeleine, a majestic church. Outside we were approached by a man who began telling us about the church – he ended up sharing that he was the priest! Besides hosting services, he also donates to local charities and houses the homeless. He was a very kind man. When we went inside, the humble interior was forgotten as a lovely choir began to rehearse. We sat there, listening to the Chinese vocals.

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For dinner we stopped around the Opera national de Paris. Many couples danced to the live music outside. I wish we could have joined in but they all looked so sophisticated and classy! We had food instead. For dessert I had fromage blanc (literal translation: white cheese), which tasted exactly like yogurt. I was not convinced that it was cheese. It actually reminded me of the skyr I had in iceland, because that snack also tasted exactly like yogurt but is actually just cheese. We had the brilliant idea of going back home and watching the movie Midnight in Paris at midnight, in Paris, at our airbnb, but once we got back we were exhausted. Next time!

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Le Louvre was our morning stop. Even though we arrived at 8:30 (it opens at 9) there was quite a line! Oh hey, Mona. The rest of the museum was nice, but not quite as impressive as I had expected based on the hype.

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I couldn’t believe we put off Le Tour Eiffel, but the wait was worth it! Yes, even the two hour long wait.We climbed to the second floor and then took the elevator up to the top. The view was gorgeous – and for the first time I understood how people could fall so deeply in love with Paris.

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Afterwards we took a train to Versailles, a small city right outside of Paris, for their celebrations. Since the 14th of July fell on a Tuesday this year, Versailles hosted its fireworks and concerts Monday night, the 13th. The fireworks were spectacular. Definitely the best fireworks I’ve ever seen! We sat very close, and felt like we were right underneath them. The show was coordinated to a variety of music, and the sky was bright with flashes of colour. Afterwards we took the train back to Paris and hit up a bal des pompiers. These “firemen’s balls” are traditional balls held annually in fire stations. We went to La caserne Menilmontant and danced the night away. The DJ was surprisingly great – he even played Summer Nights from Grease! Firefighters were dressed in their uniforms, dancing with the crowd, and we all had a great time.

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To kick off the real festivities, we skipped the military parade (we were way too exhausted after the firemen’s ball), and I met up with Daniel and Léo at La Comédie-Française. Every year for the national holiday, they put on a free performance of their current show. I was really excited to see French theatre, and was even more enthused when I heard it would be a Victor Hugo play! When I met up with Daniel and Léo, they asked me what play it was. I said I didn’t know, but that we could easily find out online. They said that it would be more fun to leave it as a surprise. And so we waited in line for tickets, I got a croque monsieur (super classic French sandwich), and walked into the theatre with no idea what we were going to see. It was amazing. The acting was superb, and the staging was great. Before the show started I was a little concerned I wouldn’t be able to understand the text, but Daniel reassured me that in theatre most people speak slowly anyway. Sure, I had faith. Indeed, the first performer who spoke talked very slowly. And I understood everything he said! I had hope the rest of the play would go well. However, as soon as the next person came on, the speaking speed rose and I often had trouble understanding the older vocabulary, especially in the French accents. Luckily Daniel explained a few bits here and there during small pauses, and I had a much better grasp on the storyline, and after I understood what was happening on stage, the last three-quarters of the play were much more enjoyable! It was truly a wonderful performance. I got a first glimpse at French theatre customs – the actors have to continue bowing as long as there is applause. The first time we clapped, the actors took a few bows and left the stage. I prepared for the house lights to go up, and for everyone to leave. But no, the actors came back, did the same bow routine, and left again. Okay, so this time, right? No. Repeat. And again. And again. They came back at least ten times, just bowing. I was completely shocked by this tradition! On the plus side, I got to yell out Bravo! and Encore! Oh, and after the performance we looked at our tickets – the show was Lucrèce Borgia.

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Afterwars we headed to meet all of the others at the Champ de Mars, the huge park overlooking the Eiffel Tower. It is known to be one of the best spots to see the fireworks (in French, le feu d’artifice). Although we got there hours early (we got there at 5 PM; the show would start at 11 PM), it was already packed with people. We passed the time with bread and cheese, cards, and good company. The fireworks itself were very unique – they used the architecture of the Eiffel Tower as a centrepiece, sending them off from various levels of the Tower. The music was also diverse – they played Skyfallle Marseillaise (the French national anthem), and songs representing other cultures as well. It wasn’t as breathtaking as the ones in Versaille, but it was technically cleaner and very site-specific. A great way to end our Paris trip!

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Oui, Paris captivated our hearts.

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