We stood in the shadow of Paris’ famous gargoyles, looking up. The great gothic cathedral where Napoleon was crowned emperor of France loomed — dark and broody — before us, the perfect backdrop for Victor Hugo’s tragic tale, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In the original story, Esmerelda dies and the hideous hunchback lay next to her body like a loyal dog before he, too, perished from starvation.
You gotta love the French and their happy endings.
Of course the kids aren’t familiar with this story. They were chasing pigeons across the cathedral square, while tourists clicked away at their cameras — not that any of the resulting pictures would be able to capture the Notre Dame’s prominence in literature and history books.
A few feet away was the brass plate marking of Point Zero, the point from which all distances in Paris are measured.
For some strange reason, first-time visitors to Paris use it as a wishing well by tossing coins into the centre, making it the place to come if you’re all out of loose change. Yeah, fuck self-respect and decorum — you want free money, don’t you?
There’s several sights of interest on the Ile de la Cite, one of the Seine’s two remaining the natural islands, apart from the Notre Dame. Sweet tooths flock to Berthillon, which supposedly churns out the best ice-cream in Paris according to everyone in the world who’s been here.
But we did visit the Conciergerie, the former palace-turned-prison of both common and political prisoners during the French Revolution. Marie Antoinette herself was kept here before she was taken to the guillotine to be beheaded. Despite its fascinating history, it has a sparse interior, and only a small part of the building is accessible to the public as it is still used today by the (thankfully less brutal) Paris law courts, or Palais de Justice.
The next day, we decided to go shopping — not by going to Galleries Lafayette or one of those designer outlets so favored by our Louis-Vuitton-clad Asian compadres, but to the Left Bank, lined with metal stalls of the bouquinistes, or second-hand booksellers, which have been a Parisian fixture here since the mid-1500s.
Apparently, there is a long wait to be one: overheads are virtually non-existent, hours are flexible and you have no douchebag bosses breathing down your neck — though you do need to be open at least 4 times a week. These days, the vintage paperbacks have been replaced by kitschy Made-in-China souvenirs, like fugly Eiffel Tower magnets, cheap cardboard prints of Le Chat Noir and R-rated curios.
The world is doomed.
In search of real books, we dropped into the Shakespeare and Company Bookstore instead. This former haunt of literary greats such as Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and Anaïs Nin is now a pilgrimage site for geeks. Not me. *Ahem*
We skulked around within its hallowed bookshelf-lined walls, stuffed with books of every genre you can think of (Spotting a copy of Chinese Erotic Poems, a newly translated collection of Chinese poetry spanning three thousand years, got my heart racing faster than any Chanel bag).
All was wonderful, until their grumpy resident cat kitty-slashed Ari on the face for thumbing it on the head, and the torrent of tears the ensued meant that we had to evacuate and fast, but not before hurriedly buying a copy of The Red Balloon, which was stamped with the Shakespeare logo at checkout.
We then headed to Champs Elysees — one of Paris’ most coveted addresses — to window shop. Linking Arc De Triomphe to Place de la Concorde, this bustling tree-lined avenue is flanked with high-end boutiques and tourist trap restaurants on both sides. In Paris, you’re not really a legit company if you don’t have a shop here.
As any parent of two highly spirited children will know however, stepping into Maison Guerlain — or any other shop for that matter — is virtually impossible unless you want other shoppers to look as though you’ve disemboweled their pets. On the flipside, this has saved us from buying all the useless expensive junk we don’t need.
The only place your kids will be able to act like the savages they are is the massive two-story Disney shop located mid-street — though you might need to set aside several hours for this, in case they have problems parting with the stuffed Chewbacca and / or are convinced that the toy vacuum is the best thing to happen since Disneyland. We also managed to visit Abercrombie & Fitch…
…not because I like their clothes but because it is located in a gorgeous mansion with its own box-hedged garden, so the kids could amuse themselves with gravel like a pair of gypsy children while I zipped quickly inside to take a look.
At the end of the Champs Elysees, the Grand and Petit Palais stood regally facing each other.
Struck stupid by their beauty, the husband thought it a great idea to have a picnic nearby — on a grass by the main road, to be specific. So there we sat, casually munching on baguettes while passing cars and bikes belch exhaust into our faces.
The most atmospheric neighborhood in Paris, at least in my opinion, is Montmartre. Situated on top of a hill, it does not have the flash of Paris’ other arrondissements but it’s got soul.
Artists, writers and musicians like Van Gogh, Erik Satie, Picasso, and Henri Toulouse have all lived and worked here — Toulouse frequently dropped by the red-light district of Pigalle, with its numerous sex shops and burlesque clubs, for some after-hours fun.
The most famous of these is the Moulin Rouge, where can-can girls shared the stage with legends such as Ella Fitzgerald and Edith Piaf since the late 19th century. Of course, our definition of risqué has altered tremendously since then — these girls now look like dancing nuns (albeit under-dressed ones) compared to Nicki Minaj in her music videos.
Further up is the heart of Montmartre. It is here that one can find tourists ogling at La Maison Rose, a pink candy floss of a building and the famous dining haunt of Picasso and Gertrude Stein (now serving famously bad food). A few feet away is Au Lapin Agile, the tiny but legendary village hotspot where Picasso and his pals used to gather for a rollicking good time.
This is when our sightseeing plans started unraveling.
Tired, hungry and lacking stimulation, our youngest had a EPIC meltdown there and then. Imagine a little bandit, tears and snot streaming down his face, screaming his lungs on the sidewalk till he turns blue. It would’ve been a truly scary sight if he weren’t so tiny. The tourists were chuckling in the beginning, but then began tut-tut-tuttting when they realize he probably needs to be locked away in a padded cell and not roaming the streets of Montmartre with his obviously irresponsible parents.
We should’ve taken the Le petit train de Montmartre. A train would’ve shut any kid up. But it was too late.
And then, as if things can’t get any worse, we were at the Place du Tetre (which is a wonderful albeit touristy square filled with Renoirs and Van Gogh of our time, by the way), when a Parisienne fucking singed my eldest son’s cheeks with her cigarette. The floozy then turned to my husband, who was pushing my son in a stroller, and remarked, “You should be more careful next time.”
Like what the darn-diddly-doodly did you just say, madamoiselle?
Now, the husband had self-control but I did not. Ari and I were watching some artists at work in the square, but I whipped around the moment I heard Mika wailing in pain. By the time I found out what happened and was ready to sucker-punch the harlot who did this, she had already vanished into the sea of tourists — all without apologizing. Lucky her.
Despite these ghastly incidents, we finally — finally! — made it to the Sacre Coeur. Perched atop of Paris like a whimsical mirage, this alabaster basilica is the city’s queen of monuments.
And it was at that moment when, looking over this beautiful-godawful city, that I breathed a sigh of relief. Paris is officially out of my system. I am so over it, just like I am over a gorgeous ex.
It was time to get out.
- If you must shop in Paris, avoid designer outlets targeted at Chinese tourists and head instead to one of the city’s atmospheric covered shopping arcades, like Galleries Vivienne or Passage du Grand Cerf.
- If you have young children or a knee problem, don’t bother climbing to the Sacre Coeur. You can take a Montmartrobus from Place Pigalle and, from there, you can hop onboard a fun petit train.
- Many notable individuals have lived in Montmartre — try walking around and spotting some of the artists former homes. Hint: look for the marble plaque outside.