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The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Hollywood)

 

A few weeks ago, something glorious transpired in my ordinary little muggle realm:  The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in Universal Studios, Hollywood.  As an avid fan of the Harry Potter books and films, I was thrilled. Finally, a muggle like myself could get a taste of the wizarding world without flying across the country (which would require a plane, as I’m not trained to fly a broom…though I’ve tried).

My birthday was yesterday, and my boyfriend’s (EZ) gift to me was a trip to the Wizarding World.  He was like my own personal Hagrid, whisking me away to a place of magic and wonder on my birthday…although instead of turning 11, I was turning 11 + 20. So yesterday, we took the day off work and headed out around 7:00 a.m., since we had early admission tickets (which meant we could enter the Wizarding World at 8:00, an hour before the park officially opened, thus avoiding the crowds).  I donned muggle attire, with wizard accents like the scarlet-and-gold Gryffindor scarf from EZ and the golden snitch charm necklace from my friend. I was ready.

If you have not yet visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in either Orlando or Hollywood, and wish to be surprised by all of its little quirks and revelations when you do visit, then stop reading here. I don’t want to spoil the fun for those who want an unfiltered experience.

The Wizarding World encompasses the village of Hogsmeade and the castle of Hogwarts. The entrance is a stone archway with an iron-wrought sign for Hogsmeade, which warns “Please respect the spell limits.” Just beyond the archway is the quaint, snow-capped village in all its whimsical, wintry splendor.

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Once EZ and I passed through the archway, we were greeted by the train conductor of the Hogwarts Express, which was stopped at the Hogsmeade Station.

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The village itself is comprised of beloved shops and spots like Zonko’s Joke Shop, Honeyduke’s, Ollivanders, The Three Broomsticks, Hog’s Head Pub, Owl Post, Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment, Dervish and Banges, and Gladrags Wizardwear, all of which are open to the public, along with closed facades such as Madam Puddifoot’s Tea Shop, The Magic Neep, Spintwitches, and Tomes and Scrolls.

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The whimsical details are well executed. Zonko’s boasts an array of quirky, nostalgic joke products, novelty items, and toys – with random products whirring and buzzing willy nilly for an authentic splash of pandemonium. Honeyduke’s is a candy lover’s dream, with gorgeous displays of sweets in every color of the rainbow, not to mention wizard favorites like Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans, Chocolate Frogs, and exploding bonbons, among others.  Galloping gargoyles!

The Owl Post is stocked with plush owl toys, some of which hoot and turn as you walk in, along with stationary, quills, and other owlish goodies.  Tourists can send letters from here with a Hogsmeade postmark (although muggle laws likely prohibit the use of owl messengers to deliver them).

Dervish and Banges purveys quidditch and Hogwarts uniforms, Gladrags offers fine wizarding garments, and Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment sells wizarding wares such as hourglasses, crystal balls, and other trinkets and treasures.

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But of course I’ve saved the best shop for last: Ollivanders.  The line for the “Wand Experience” was negligible, so EZ and I were clustered together with a small group of people and ushered into the dusky foyer of the wand shop. Then, a trick panel of shelving opened up to reveal an inner chamber.  We moved into this inner chamber, where the wandkeeper (Ollivander’s assistant, ostensibly) stood behind a desk, surrounded by shelves of wand boxes.  The room was lit only by a dim lantern.

Our wandkeeper was a young lady with a British accent. She edified us with a summary of wandlore. Then she surveyed our group and selected from among us the one whom she felt had the most magical energy (to my dismay, the “chosen one” was an 11-year-old girl…why don’t 31-year-old girls get any love?).  The wandkeeper proceeded to help the girl choose a wand…or rather, help the wand choose her.  The first few wands the girl tried wreaked havoc, spurring boxes to pop out of their shelving and creating a general raucous.  “Hmm…I wonder…” the wandkeeper murmured as she selected a certain wand box and blew the dust off its cover.  The girl waved the wand, and the lights glowed brightly, accompanied by an enchanted breeze and magical sounds. The wand had chosen her.

It was a charming experience, and the wandkeeper played her role superbly. She described each wand by its wood, core, and pliability, just like in the books/movies.  The wandkeeper even improvised when a giant moth found its way into the chamber…after trying to shoo the moth away, she declared that animals had an affinity for the girl, and this sentiment was incorporated into the reasons why the final wand had chosen her. The girl was then given the opportunity to buy this special wand…what a sales pitch! How could her parents say no after such a magical experience?

Another door opened on the other side of the dim chamber, leading into the bright main area of the wand shop.  Others could freely enter this area through Wiseacre’s.  I was in wand heaven…I examined the different wands used by each character – from Harry’s trio to the Death Eaters – then perused all the other wand possibilities…birch, rowan, holly, elder, ash, etc.  A sign indicated the different personality traits typically associated with each wood type. EZ claimed that I should be paired with a rowan wand.  I looked up at the description:  “ROWAN – The wood is revered for its powers of protection. Rowan people are full of healing energy and they delight in helping others. Rowan people should use their powerful imagination and resourceful nature to make their dreams come true.”

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While the other Hogsmeade shops are just facades that don’t allow for entry, these facades are still beautifully and thoughtfully detailed.  The lace-trimmed window displays at Madame Puddifoot’s Tea Shop are a pastel profusion of dainty tea cups and flowery confections promising the potential for awkward first dates. The Magic Neep greengrocer window reveals a bountiful harvest of colorful vegetables. Spintwitches exhibits sporting equipment, including a box of quidditch balls where the bludgers are jumping, striving to escape their restraints so they can bludgeon the nearest passerby. Tomes and Scrolls showcases best-selling books, including volumes by the “dreamy” Gilderoy Lockheart with animated photographs. There are also several other window displays.

As EZ and I strolled down a side alley in Hogsmeade, we spotted a child wizard with a wand, standing in front of a window displaying cauldrons. He was holding a map and standing on a metal circle with an inscription. With a wave of his wand, he uttered an incantation. Suddenly, a cauldron began to make bubbling sounds. It seems he was using one of the premium “interactive wands” for sale at Ollivanders (I believe these are the wands offered to the “chosen ones” during Ollivander’s Wand Experience). These wands can be used at designated spots throughout Hogsmeade, as indicated on the map, to cast spells and make magical things happen. Wicked.

The streets of Hogsmeade offered other treats as well. I partook in my first butterbeer, which was available in both ice-blended and original varieties. I opted for the sweeter ice-blended butterbeer and reveled in the caramely-buttery goodness, topped with whipped cream reminiscent of beer froth.

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The Magic Neep cart also offers Gillyweed Water, Pumpkin Juice, and others snacks and beverages. As I sipped at my delightful butterbeer, a flash of motion caught my eye. It was an animated wanted poster for Sirius Black.

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After consuming my butterbeer, my bladder was quite full. I popped into the ladies’ room to relieve myself, and was met with the wailing, gurgling sounds of Moaning Myrtle, the quirky ghost that haunts the toilets.

Finally, having exhausted the marvels of the village, EZ and I made our way towards Hogwarts: an impressive, majestic castle bordered by trees hinting at a forest. In the middle of a roped-off section where the lines were supposed to queue (once the masses arrived) perched the battered remains of the Weasleys’ flying Ford Anglia…presumably after having crashed from a particularly wonky flight.

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EZ and I admired the castle from different angles, then found ourselves in a corner of Hogwarts that housed Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods. We explored this dim cavern of magical creatures, Marauder’s maps, Wizard’s Chess, and other wizarding novelties. My heart nearly broke when I noticed a group of sad Dobbys, all in a row. I immediately took one into my arms. We were also besieged by a hoard of pesky pixies. Pixies are the worst.

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After we’d had our fill, EZ and I left the magical creatures behind and strode through Hogwarts’ main entrance to experience the Forbidden Journey ride. The line was only about 5 to 10 minutes long, but I didn’t mind the wait; all of the waiting areas of the castle had been programmed with magical detailing so that our movement through the lines was more like a tour through the castle. Certain rooms housed paintings that spoke and moved; their banter was actually quite amusing. Some of the paintings made fun of us muggles. Another room looked into Dumbledore’s office with all of its curiosities, complete with a projection of Dumbledore speaking to us from his balcony. In what appeared to be a Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, Harry, Hermione, and Ron appeared and attempted to prepare us for what lay ahead. One chamber displayed The Daily Prophet with headlines about quidditch matches and animated photographs. The room closest to the ride held paintings of witches and wizards who attempted to further prepare us muggles.

As we approached the ride itself, an employee saw EZ checking his phone. “What’s that?” the employee asked with a befuddled expression. It took me a second to realize that he didn’t mean anything specific on the phone; he meant the phone itself.

“A smartphone…muggle technology,” I answered.

“Can I have it?” the wizard employee asked.

“We’ll trade you for your wand,” I offered, though EZ didn’t seem pleased with this arrangement.

“Definitely!” the wizard employee said.  But we moved along in the line, past his post, before the trade could take place.

Finally, EZ and I were secured into the seats of the ride, 3D glasses perched on our noses. And then the ride was off, jerking this way and that like a cluster of faulty brooms, following Harry Potter himself as he and his friends directed us up into the air and around the grounds. The ride was a wonderful combination of physical figures and 3D visions coordinated with the movements of the seats for a life-like experience. We encountered dragons, dementors, and deranged quidditch players. We swooped and spun and juddered and turned. After our wild romp, Harry Potter guided us back into the safety of the castle. As some muggles say, it was a rollicking good time.

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After the thrill of the Forbidden Journey, EZ and I hopped on the Flight of the Hippogriff, which was a fairly tame and short ride intended for small children. But it did feature a cool-looking life-sized animatronic hippogriff. And again, no line.

We decided to cap our visit to Hogsmeade with a drink. First we popped into The Three Broomsticks, but it was crowded with families ordering a traditional English breakfast (which didn’t sound appealing). So instead, we headed inside Hog’s Head Pub.

“IDs, please,” said the bartender, a witch. As she examined our IDs, a puzzled expression crossed her face. “That’s sooo weird…”

“What?” we asked.

“The pictures don’t move!” she said, shaking her head and returning the IDs to us. “Muggles.”

As the bartender poured our drinks, a giant hog’s head mounted on the wall behind her grunted and looked from side to side.

“Does it do that all day?” EZ asked.

“Oh yeah,” replied the bartender. “He snorts, he grunts, he sings, he steals my drinks. So annoying.”

We cast one last look at the hog’s head, along with the shrunken heads next to it, then made our way to the outdoor patio, which was empty and sundrenched. By now, we could see a long line queued around the back of Ollivander’s waiting for the Wand Experience. Sipping our beers, we recapped and judged our time at the Wizarding World. All in all, it had been a truly magical morning, and the short lines made it stress-free to boot. My only wish would be….more. Not that the Wizarding World had been lacking in anything particular; I just always want more when it comes to Harry Potter. More books, more movies, more magic. The end is always such a sorrow.

As we exited the pub, we were greeted by the sound of throaty music. Following our ears, we arrived at an outdoor stage in the middle of the village, where the Hogwarts student choir was performing with their toads. Merlin’s beard, those toads were ugly! But the music was divine.

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It was a sweet sendoff from the magical realm.

EZ and I spent the afternoon enjoying most of the remaining rides and attractions at Universal Studios, since we were lucky enough to keep running into minimal lines. But the highlight had definitely been the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Perhaps someday I will return, not as a muggle, but as a witch. I may be 31, but I’m still holding out for my Hogwarts admission letter.

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Volunteer Resolution

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This housing project was once known for gangs, but I honestly don’t see that. I see loving families struggling to find a better life.

Two years ago, I was ready for a positive change and made a New Year’s resolution to volunteer.

When I started tutoring kids here, I found a sixth grader reading at a first-grade level; another didn’t know how to multiply. One discouraged girl said about her future, ‘There’s always McDonalds.’

But no one’s beyond help. They just need a little encouragement. We teach them never to be ashamed and that every problem can be broken down. Many don’t recognize their own talents.

When the lightbulb goes on in their heads, I get a burst of energy. I see progress in tiny steps, the seeds of self confidence, something I hope they’ll carry for life.

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Learn more about the Let’s Read program in Pueblo Del Rio at https://www.gofundme.com/PuebloLetsRead

Are you in the L.A. area and interested in volunteering? Get involved at http://www.laworks.com/ 

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Queen Califia’s Magical Circle

Queen Califia’s Magical Circle!  It sounds like something from ancient mythology, a strange dream, or perhaps the 60’s psychedelic movement…right?  When I entered this magical circle – which is in fact a spectacular, kaleidoscopic sculpture garden – it felt a bit like all three.

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The sculpture garden is a vibrant creation of Niki de Saint Phalle (1930 to 2002), a fantastic French sculptor, painter, and filmmaker whose work I first experienced at the Guggenheim in Bilbao during a recent trip to Spain with my boyfriend (EZ) and some friends. At the Guggenheim, I was struck by the passion, color combinations, shape, whimsy, and visceral nature of her art.

Saint Phalle’s works ranged from the jubilant, larger-than-life feminine figures of the Nanas (“I love the round, the curves, the undulation…the world is round, the world is a breast” – Niki de Saint Phalle)…

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…to the powerful statement of her mixed-media pop gun art (“I was shooting at myself – I was shooting my own violence and the violence of the times”)…

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…to the adolescent, fanciful Dear Diary drawings that belied the capricious heart and troubled childhood they exposed (“Most people don’t see the edginess in my work. They think it’s all fantasy and whimsy”)

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…to the strange, psychedelic children’s books about AIDS (“AIDS is a complex situation that’s sure to bring out the best and the worst in people”)

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…to her rainbowed, mirrored, mosaic sculpture garden of endearing critters and beasts (“It’s my destiny to make a place where people can come and be happy: a garden of joy”) – Queen Califia’s Magical Circle.

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After falling in love with Niki de Saint Phalle’s works at the Guggenheim, EZ and I vowed to explore her sculpture garden in Escondido, back in our home state of California. And we finally did this past weekend! It is a gorgeous, phantasmagorical oasis!

Queen Califia’s Magical Circle is bordered by a maze of walls fitted with black, white, and mirrored quadrilaterals and triangles (the mirrors reflect the colorful sculptures within the garden). Atop these walls slither cartoonish, undulating snakes.

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If you take a closer look, you’ll see the materials used in the mosaic patchwork are varied: an epic assortment of tile, glass, mirror, and stone gathered from around the world and also used to create the other mosaic sculptures in the garden.

“Niki personally selected dozens of varieties of glass in differing shapes, color, hue, translucency, and degrees of reflection,” said Lech Juretko, who directed Saint Phalle’s mosaic workshop. “For the first time, she also used a wide assortment of polished and tumbled stones such as travertine, agates, quartzes, and veined turquoise.”

All of these materials come together for a bold effect that is nothing short of magical.

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Once you move beyond the maze walls and the guardian snakes, you’ll find a gigantic multicolored eagle at the center of the circle, ridden by the armored Queen Califia herself. And who is Califia? Why, she is the stuff of legends: a black Amazon queen fabled to rule an island paradise of treasure. She is also a symbol of feminine power.

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Beneath the enormous bird, a domed temple portrays the scintillating cosmos and harbors a grand, golden egg.

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Through the arches of the domed underbelly, you can see the other statues in the garden.

Saint Phalle drew on regional history and mythology while planning the sculptures for the garden, particularly the totem-pole structures (“They became springboards to create imaginative creatures which celebrate the diversity of life, as well as those factors which have played a large role in Southern California [including the Spanish, Mexican, and Southwestern Indian cultures]” – Niki de Saint Phalle).

These totems feature sacred and symbolic monsters, animals, humans, deities, and iconography.  All of this was lost, however, on the many children who scampered about the Magic Circle – to them, all of the sculptures just looked funny, scary, or interesting – but above all – COOL. The sculptures ignited the imaginations of children and adults alike.

After taking the time to appreciate the artistic and historical significance of the sculptures, EZ and I scampered around the Magic Circle ourselves, communing with each proud, grotesque, or comical creature and trying to mimic their expressions.

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Why would an internationally renowned artist like Niki de Saint Phalle create such a dazzling sculpture garden in little old Escondido? Well, in 1994, Saint Phalle moved from Paris to La Jolla, California due to poor health and found the change of scenery to be healing.

“California has been a rebirth for my soul and an earthquake for my eyes—sea, desert, mountains, wide open sky, brilliance of light and vastness of space,” Saint Phalle said. “I have embraced another way of life, and have let my discovery of this landscape manifest itself in my work.”

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© Copyright 2012 CorbisCorporation

Niki de Saint Phalle, 1972

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If you are in the San Diego/Escondido area or plan to visit, I highly recommend you check out Queen Califia’s Magical Circle – it’s free!  However, it is only open to the public on the second Saturday of each month from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., weather permitting.

 

Address:

Located in the Iris Sankey Arboretum

Kit Carson Park

3333 Bear Valley Parkway

Escondido, CA 92025

 

And if you’re looking for something to do in the area before or afterwards, here are a few recommendations:

 

Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens:  A beautiful brewery with an open, chic  interior and lovely, expansive grounds (huge patio, turf areas, babbling brooks, etc.)

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Plan 9 AlehouseA gastropub with mouthwatering food creations, decent drinks, a hipster vibe, and an area where you can play Nintendo! It’s also pleasant to stroll and peruse the little downtown area where the alehouse is located.

EscoGelato: Amazing gelato. Enough said.

Sunny Side Kitchen: Delicious brunch. Small but quaint atmosphere.

Looking for a place to stay?  Try Capability Ranch.  Get the fun ranch experience while watching your money go toward a great cause.  This is where we stayed during our visit.

And here are a few cool spots near Capability Ranch:

  • Potato Chip Rock: A challenging hike and a striking photo op on a precipitous potato-chip-thin rock!
  • Lake Poway Park: A lovely lake with recreation areas and hikes.
  • Company Pub & Kitchen: Delicious food, decent drinks, cool atmosphere.
  • ChuckAlek Independent Brewers: ChuckAlek specializes in Old World style beers, recreating heritage craft brews by using…beer historians!   ChuckAlek also offers a fascinating selection of experimental beers.
  • Goodwill Bookstore: One of the best used book stores I’ve been to. Reasonable prices, well organized, wide range of books, many popular books, offers records and knickknacks, and pleasant atmosphere.  Need I say more?  Actually, I will say more – it’s a good cause. Goodwill provides job training, employment placement services, and other community-based programs for people who have disabilities.

Happy visiting!:)

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Paris in Three Days: Day 3

After a leisurely Day 1 and a whirlwind Day 2, EZ and I approached our third and last day in Paris with a desire to fit in as much as possible of the remaining sites we wanted to see, while also somehow taking the time to savor them.

We awoke bright and early that misty Parisian morning, enjoyed some pastries and coffee from the corner boulangerie, and caught a metro to our first stop: The Grand Synagogue of Paris. As EZ is Jewish, we wanted to pay tribute to this beautiful temple, which was built in 1874 and remains the largest synagogue in France. We admired the classical style of the architecture, with the circular blossom windows, embellished columns, and other lovely flourishes. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed inside due to a private service.

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Next, EZ and I took on the mother of all Paris sights: The Louvre. That magnificent, formidable fortress of culture and history…it looked even more imposing beneath the bank of clouds darkening above.

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EZ and I skipped the long line at the main entrance by using the Porte Des Lions entrance, one of the “secret” alternative entrances. It was a good thing, too, because a pattering rain had begun to fall… we’d have been soaked if we waited in the main line.

Given the massive scale of this iconic art museum (one of the largest in the world), seeing everything the Louvre had to offer within one day would have been impossible. And we still had other places to visit on our last day. So EZ and I carefully selected the exhibits we most wanted to see within the next four hours.

We began with the Islamic Art, which boasted an array of gorgeous artifacts. Glazed dishes, enameled bottles, illustrated tapestries, intricate woodwork, decorated tiles…the relics were diverse and exquisitely crafted. It was interesting to learn how these objects were used in everyday life hundreds of years ago in Syria, Egypt, Iran, Central Asia, Spain, and other areas with Islamic populations.

The extensive European painting collections were next…in order to cover the long hallways and multiple off-shoot rooms within a reasonable amount of time, we had to glance at each painting as we walked at a brisk clip, lingering only at those paintings we found most compelling. Many of the works conveyed religious or mythological themes. EZ took pleasure in photographing some of the more bizarre paintings…

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After wandering through the seemingly endless halls of European paintings, we went in search of the Holy Grail – that is, the Mona Lisa. She was surrounded by a large crowd of people taking selfies. As one pair of teenaged girls attempted their selfie, they knocked into an older French gentleman who cried, “Mademoiselle!” in deep indignation.

I eased my way through the throngs and attempted to commune silently with the mystical portrait. Because everyone had always exclaimed how she was much smaller than expected, I was actually surprised by her modest, medium size. I pondered the secrets behind her eyes, the mystery of her smile. Finally, I took a picture and moved on.

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Our final exhibit at the Louvre was the Arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. EZ and I found this to be our favorite, given the unique and delightfully whimsical sculptures, many of which served social uses in their respective cultures. I loved the aesthetics of the artistry – which clearly required considerable skill – as well as the playful spirit of many pieces.

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Our time at the Louvre was capped with the requisite visit to the gift shop, which merited its own measured perusal. After a while, I decided upon some nice vintage-style art plates for my family, a couple of quirky art magnets, and an adorable mug that seemed to perfectly depict our rainy yet cozy day at the Louvre.

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“Ich auch”

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“J’aime Paris”

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“Moi aussi”

Souvenier bags in hand, EZ and I hopped a metro to the Ile de la Cite, where there was still more for us to see. But first we ducked into Ma Salle a Manger to warm ourselves with some soup. It was a quaint, nearly empty café with vintage French movie posters, a chandelier evocative of Alice in Wonderland, and other fanciful accents. While I enjoyed my French onion soup, EZ’s tangy vegetable soup left something to be desired.

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Warmed and revived from our meal, we headed to Conciergerie Palace. During the French Revolution, the Conciergerie had been used as a prison from which convicts were taken to be executed at the guillotine down the road. Before that, it had been a royal palace.

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It felt a bit eerie to wander the gallery that prisoners had passed through centuries before, many of them innocent. But the Gothic architecture was impressive, especially the twisted pillars in the Salle des Gens d’Armes (Hall of Men in Arms).

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The spooky feeling lingered as EZ and I passed the prison cells that had once been occupied, and when we arrived at a room listing the names of all those who had been condemned to the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. Once we reached Marie Antoinette’s final chambers, we found that the room had been set up with model guards and a model Marie beneath a black shroud to recreate the tragic situation. If one of them moved, I might have screamed…

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In keeping with the creepy theme of the Conciergerie, EZ and I decided to check out the Notre Dame Crypts next, assuming that the crypts were, in fact, tombs. To our surprise, we learned that the crypts were actually historical ruins – archeological remains and excavations of early settlements on the Ile de la Cite. But this was still a fascinating discovery. EZ and I wandered through the dark, underground labyrinth, exploring the crumbling walls that demarcated ancient villages, and watching these old ruins come back to life in miniature model constructions and interactive video media.

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When we reemerged into the modern world outside, we found that the gloomy weather had banished half the line for Notre Dame Cathedral. Moreover, the line was moving at a fairly rapid pace, because the cathedral was about to begin mass. What serendipity!

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Before long, EZ and I were through the handsome iron-worked wooden doors and inside the cathedral, where the pews were filled with locals attending mass. At the altar, below a lovely rose window, fragrant incense caused smoke to billow forth like a mystic apparition had just vanished from the spot.

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EZ and I followed a handful of tourists around the cathedral, walking silently and respectfully as we admired the architecture and ornamentation. Beautiful, holy singing from the vespers service drifted over to us, reminding us that this famous cathedral was not just a historical marvel, but a modern-day place of worship for devout Catholic Parisians.

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But, as Notre Dame is indeed a famous cathedral, featured prominently in well known cultural works such as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, EZ and I had to see the notorious gargoyles and bells of Notre Dame. Unfortunately, the bell tower was not open to visitors at the time.

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Having experienced the major sites of Ile de la Cite, EZ and I began to walk towards the Latin Quarter for some drinks. On the way, however, we encountered some lesser known places worth exploring.

First, we crossed a bridge with locks, of which there are several in Paris, although the authorities have been working to change that. According to tradition, lovers sign padlocks with their initials and the date, lock the padlocks onto the side of the bridge, and toss the key into the river. This is supposed to symbolize their undying love. While this sounds romantic in theory, the reality is that the weight of all the metal locks threatens the integrity of the bridge, and could potentially lead to collapse. Also, historical purists feel the locks mar the beauty of the bridge’s original architecture. As a result, Paris officials are in the process of removing locks from bridges.

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EZ and I enjoyed reading the inscriptions on the locks, which dated as far back as the early 1990s (from what we found), but we did not feel compelled to create our own. Our love is expressed in other ways…in everyday affections and appreciation, in thoughtful surprises and sweet gestures. Plus, it would have been super lame if we created a lock only to have it removed by some Paris city worker!

After crossing the bridge of locks, EZ and I were continuing to wander toward the Latin Quarter, when we stumbled upon an interesting sight.  Within a small, enclosed grass area, we saw a raised stone platform. On the side of it, etched in gold, were the words Martyrs Francais de la Deportation, next to the number “1945.” The style of the writing was made to look as though it had been etched by hand using primitive tools – sharp, imprecise lines; angular. Where were we? EZ and I asked an official-looking lady who stood at a kiosk nearby.

“This is a Holocaust memorial,” she replied solemnly. “For the French who were deported to Nazi concentration camps during World War II.”

We then noticed a set of stairs descending into what must have been the belly of the memorial. The lady allowed us to visit the memorial and pay our respects, on the condition that we did not publish any photographs we took; such images were to be used only for private reflection. And so I will try my best to describe what my photographs would have shown.

Imagine this:

As you descend the stairs, you find yourself in a sort of concrete outdoor grotto, where black iron spears are mounted upon one wall, sharp black iron triangles jutting out from them like flags. Is this a piece of art? It looks stark and menacing, like medieval weaponry. You kneel down, and just beyond the spiked bottoms of the ironwork is a metal grate, through which you can see the flow of the Seine river. A peaceful, lovely sight…but the bars of the grate feel too confining. A barrier.

You stand. On the other side of the concrete grotto, you see a doorway. You enter into the dim, hexagonal subterranean chamber. In the center of the chamber floor is a large, circular metal plaque with a bright bulb in the middle. The border of the plaque bears French writing, similar to the angular inscriptions outside. You later learn that this inscription translates to: “They descended into the mouth of the earth and they did not return.”

Sadness trickles through you like a warm rain. You raise your eyes. Directly in front of you, just past the plaque, is a barred window glowing with the light beyond. As you approach, you realize the window looks into a long, narrow passageway, the walls on either side illuminated by thousands of miniature glass crystal bulbs – each golden bulb represents a life lost. Right at the front of the hall sits a black rectangular box, upon which five white roses lay. At the end of the tunnel is a light – a lantern or candle of some sort. The effect is altogether surreal. Like a trance, or a strange dream. You feel a shiver run through your body as you move back from the barred window.

You look up. More angular inscriptions are etched across the tops of the walls. They are also in French. But you later learn their translation:  “Dedicated to the living memory of the 200,000 French deportees sleeping in the night and the fog, exterminated in the Nazi concentration camps.”

Your eyes press shut in a moment of silence and respect. Then you continue on to the small adjoining rooms that look like prison cells. That unnerving style of angular writing, as though etched by a prisoner using a sharp stone, is there again at the top of the walls. Later, you learn these are fragments of poetry.

I have dreamt so very much of you

I have walked so much

Loved your shadow so much

That nothing more is left to me of you

All that remains to me is to be the shadow among shadows

To be a hundred times more of a shadow than the shadow

To be the shadow that will come and come again

Into your sunny life

 

These rooms contain earth and bones from the concentration camps. You realize that you are in a crypt, a real one, and begin to feel claustrophobic. The dim lighting, the enclosed space, the strange style of the inscriptions, the sadness of the place…it all flows through you in a tangle of emotion.

Air…fresh air. You move back toward the entrance, which is also the exit. Above the doorway are the words “PARDONNE N’OUBLIE PAS…”   Your French is not very good, but you know this much.

Please never forget.  

*                         *                             *

EZ and I emerged from the memorial feeling as though we had undergone some momentous, transformative experience. We held hands and walked in silence, reflecting to ourselves before we felt normal enough to discuss the visceral memorial. We had never seen anything like it, but found it to be much more powerful than traditional memorial structures.

After a while, we arrived in the Latin Quarter. EZ and I popped into Esmeralda and Chabana’s for a drink or three. It was a fun little Latin hole-in-the-wall, lively with neon lights and Spanish music. One wall was papered with paper currencies from around the globe, along with photographs and art. Here, we finally got a chance to unwind over peanuts and booze.

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But wait! We still wanted to check out the Pompidou Center, which would close in a couple of hours. Would we make it in time? EZ and I checked the clock…we could…if we left right now. We downed our drinks, paid the tab, and rushed toward the nearest metro stop.

Soon, we found ourselves in the rainy Pompidou Center, a modern art museum aptly contained in a funky, contemporary complex. The exposed, color-coded framework gave the museum an industrial yet playful feel. Inside, we were one of only a few visitors. EZ and I meandered through the rooms, admiring the modern works, which had their own air of playfulness. However, as we read the texts beside them, we learned that despite their seeming lightheartedness, these works often served as political or social commentary when interpreted appropriately.

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Of course, we didn’t have time to cover the entire museum before it closed, but EZ and I were glad to have seen enough to appreciate it. By this time, it had grown quite dark, and our stomachs were rumbling. Too weary to discover a new restaurant, EZ and I headed back to our apartment and dined across the street at Le Souris Verte once more, knowing that we already enjoyed the food. We were not disappointed…I relished in a delicious yet affordable salmon dish prepared in the classical French style, while EZ loved his “Burger de la Revolucion.” And our waitress was very amiable as she attempted to speak English, and I attempted to speak French, in order to decide which wine we should order. She was also frank enough to tell us, in no uncertain terms, which wines were NOT good.

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Here, at the restaurant, EZ and I happily and comfortably recapped our three-day Paris trip. It was quite pleasant to relive the highlights, and to realize just how much we were able to cram into three days. Of course, we also realized that some of our planning was not the most efficient; for example, we should have bundled all of the sights on Ile de la Cite into one day to minimize travel and maximize time. Still…overall, we were pleased with our vacation.

And what was my impression of Paris, then, after three days? In my mind, before coming to Paris, I imagined the city preserved in some picturesque, quaint old state…perhaps in the 1920s. Of course, Paris still retains many timeless elements, but it is also a bustling modern, commercial center, with aspects not unlike those found in the U.S. Once I got used to that fact, I was able to love Paris for what it was, an amalgam of old and new, of historical and contemporary, but in any case – beautiful. Full of culture. Brimming with charm.

I shall end on a pair of quotes from Midnight in Paris, a very delightful film that you must see if you have not yet had the pleasure:

Adriana:  “I can never decide whether Paris is more beautiful by day or by night.”

Gil:  “No, you can’t, you couldn’t pick one. I mean, I can give you a checkmate argument for each side. You know, I sometimes think, how is anyone ever gonna come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture that can compete with a great city. You can’t. Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form and when you think that in the cold, violent, meaningless universe that Paris exists, these lights, I mean come on, there’s nothing happening on Jupiter or Neptune, but from way out in space you can see these lights, the cafés, people drinking and singing. For all we know, Paris is the hottest spot in the universe.”

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Paris in Three Days: Day 2

While Day 1 in Paris allowed us to get our feet wet, our second day was a full immersion. EZ and I woke up early in the morning and grabbed some croissants and pastries at the boulangerie (bakery) on the same block as our apartment. I must note that the baked goods in Paris are astonishingly good. The fancy, expensive, gourmet delicacies that we buy as special treats in the U.S. are everyday breakfast fare in Paris, much like donuts or bagels in the U.S. Except that in Paris, pastries aren’t too costly; they are a daily staple, after all.

Our stomachs satiated, EZ and I ran to the tour office for our purchased package of Eiffel Tower/Seine River Cruise to make sure we didn’t miss our tour group.  We made it just in the nick of time; within a few minutes, the tour guide led our group toward the Eiffel Tower, regaling us with its remarkable history.  Then we got to skip the long line for the tower, passing through just a short queue reserved for tour groups, and the tour guide set us free.

EZ and I enjoyed the alarmingly transparent floors on the first level, where we had the queasy feeling that we were about to plunge through the glass at any moment and onto the crowds below. The second floor also had some charm with its circular views over Paris. Then we found ourselves on the glass elevator.  The ride up was more exhilarating than I could have imagined; the tower really is quite high, and the rise was such a rush, especially as I watched the scenery drop down before me through the glass! Finally, at the top, the sweeping vistas of the city were spectacular. Our tour guide had provided us with a piece of paper listing descriptions and geographical locations of various landmarks, which we were able to identify in the distance. It really was a wonderful experience; touristy or not, the Eiffel Tower is not to be missed!

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After the Eiffel Tower, we were supposed to enjoy our river cruise on the nearby Seine River, but we just missed the boat. So we decided to come back later, and first check out Napoleon’s tomb. EZ and I picked up some savory pastries from a nearby boulangerie for an on-the-go lunch, not wanting to waste a second of our day. But we did take care to look around us as we walked through the neighborhood, pointing out such marvels as a building completely cloaked in verdant vegetation.

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Napoleon’s tomb was located at Les Invalides, a complex of buildings with museums and monuments related to France’s military history, as well as a hospital and retirement home for war veterans. The complex was imposing with its sprawling compound, collection of canons, and meticulously manicured grounds (which included a colony of bees to pollinate the plants).

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The domed building containing Napoleon’s tomb boasted gilded embellishments both inside and out. I was particularly taken with the frescos on the domed ceilings. Of course, the tomb itself was quite formidable…especially considering how massive the coffin was compared to Napoleon’s diminutive figure within.

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After viewing Napoleon’s comically large tomb, EZ and I headed back to the Seine River just in time to enjoy our river cruise.  It was better than I expected – this is definitely a wonderful way to see Paris: Relax with a drink in your hand and a breeze in your hair as all the beautiful sights sail by right before your eyes on the emerald waters.

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Rejuvenated from our time on the river, EZ and I bounded to the metro with fresh energy to head to the Ile de Cite, an island upon the river, which was home to several prominent sights. First, we visited Sainte-Chappelle, a royal medieval Gothic chapel, which turned out to be one of my favorite sights.  At first we wound up on the lower level, which was nice, but frankly didn’t seem worthy of the line we had waited in (Sainte-Chappelle was one of the few sights where our Paris Museum Pass did not allow us to cut the line).  There were some stained glass windows and a lovely gilded dome with a star-spangled blue ceiling.

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But then we noticed a narrow staircase in the corner of the room. Once we ascended, EZ and I experienced the true star of Sainte-Chappelle: the spectacular upper-level chapel, a masterpiece of intricate kaleidoscopic stained-glass window panels.  The panels featured impressive details illustrating nearly every part of the Bible.  In between the panels, golden vaulted framework enriched the breathtaking display. Above the outdoor entrance was another decorative motif: a gorgeous stained-glass rose window, circular with floral tracery branching out to create petal-like frames for each colorful image. It was easy to feel reverence and grace in such a stunning place as this.

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The nearby Notre Dame was next on our list, but the line was long, the crowds overbearing.  So we decided to return another time.

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Instead, as EZ and I wandered down the street, we stumbled upon a different Gothic church that was quite beautiful: Saint Severin Church. It may not have been as famous as Notre Dame, but it possessed its own charms, along with sharing some common features with Notre Dame (i.e. flying buttresses and gargoyles!)…AND there was no line! I particularly enjoyed the modern stained glass windows, many of which featured swarming abstract shapes and jewel-tone color schemes, along with the fine sprawling pillar-work and vaulting.

There is something very satisfying about straying off the beaten path of standard tourist attractions to make your own marvelous discovery.

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Having enjoyed the luxury of exploring the nearly empty Saint Severin Church at our leisure, EZ and I began to walk to the Latin Quarter, which is known as a “college town” due to the nearby universities. At Maison Georges Larnicol, I devoured the best macaroons I’d ever tasted! Melt-in-your-mouth goodness combined with delicate, precise flavors.  Of course, those polished, pastel sugar-gems are also easy on the eyes.

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A few blocks away, EZ spotted The Abbey Bookshop, an English-language used bookstore. We have a great love for book stores, and we feel possessed to explore any that come upon our path. So, of course, we ducked inside The Abbey Bookshop, where every narrow hallway, rocky cellar, nook, and crevice was brimful of books. Such a quaint, intimate experience! Like a sort of cozy book cave with tunnels…

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As we continued on our walk, we passed the Université Paris-Sorbonne, where students were gathering for some sort of event or activism.

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After a while, EZ and I realized that we had gone most of the day without a drop of alcohol. This had to be remedied straight away. We popped into The Wall, a pub where the national flags of various countries hung from the ceiling in colorful array. Here, we swigged some beers among the students.

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Thus refreshed, EZ and I made our way to Luxembourg Gardens. Rather than the lush botanical gardens I expected, the attraction was more like a large, well-manicured public park with several lovely floral/statue exhibitions. The gardens also included a cute little school of beekeeping. EZ and I enjoyed a pleasant stroll through the gardens, although at one point, some students shouted at us to “Stay off the lawn – it is forbidden!” …And so we kept to the tended paths.

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As our stomachs began to rumble, EZ and I made our way toward Polidor, a historic restaurant recommended by EZ’s uncle. Polidor was founded in 1845, with many of its original decorative and culinary elements remaining intact today. The restaurant felt rustic with its wooden framework, communal tables, and checkered red tablecloths. For the first time in my life, I tried escargot…I hadn’t expected the shells to be so beautifully formed, like whelk seashells or coffee creampuff swirls. Although I was almost afraid to take the first bite, I’m glad I did – the escargot tasted almost like squid, and the hot, salty-buttery green sauce was delicious. It was quite a delightful meal…all I had to do was avoid imagining the snails alive.

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EZ used the restroom after dinner, and discovered just how old-fashioned Polidor actually was:  the toilet was basically a hole in the ground. How charming!

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After dinner, EZ and I took the metro back to our little abode in Montmarte, reflecting on all the wondrous sights we’d seen. But there was still so much more to see! And we only had one day left in Paris…

To be continued… Read Day 3

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Paris in Three Days: Day 1

Ah, Paris!  This is a place that has nestled a charming little home for itself in the global cultural mindset as perhaps the most romantic, artistic, historic, and iconic city in existence. How does one approach such a richly multifaceted city within a measly 72 hours…and does Paris, in fact, live up to the hype?

Well, my boyfriend EZ and I managed to squeeze in quite a lot in three days, although of course we couldn’t fit in everything, and lacked the luxury of a more leisurely pace. While Paris may not have been quite what I expected, it was definitely a vibrant city worth visiting. Explore our whirlwind itinerary and decide for yourself!

Day 1

Our flight landed in Charles deGaulle airport on a misty Friday morning, and the metro whisked us into the city by late morning. EZ and I had booked lodgings at a cute little AirBnB apartment in Montmartre for a mere $88/night.  Although it might have been more convenient logistics-wise to stay in central Paris, we wanted to avoid the crowds of tourists. Instead, we opted to immerse ourselves in a more authentic Parisian neighborhood.

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After getting settled into the apartment, we walked down the street for lunch at Le Souris Verte at the recommendation of our AirBnB host. It was a unique, shabby-chic restaurant bedecked with industrial materials, second-hand objects, and old machines…along with an unwieldy disco ball.  The wait staff was friendly, the food delicious. I reveled in my decadent ravioli, while Ezra enjoyed a fresh and flavorful harvest salad.

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After lunch, EZ and I took the metro to the Tourism Office to pick up our reserved Paris Museum Pass, which would save us money on our collective visits to Paris’ museums and historical sights, while also allowing us to cut certain lines/queues.  We then walked to our first proper stop, soaking in the sights of enchanting cafes, bistros, boulangeries (bakeries), and brasseries (relaxed restaurants/breweries), along with stately old structures.

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Finally, we arrived at our first stop: Tuileries Garden, which was quite near the Louvre (although we were saving that time-suck for the last day) and within viewing distance of the Eiffel Tower’s spire (in fact, we spotted the tip of the tower from many parts of Paris…it’s almost impossible to get lost when you have the Eiffel Tower as a guidepost).  We meandered around the arch between the gardens and the Louvre, then wandered through the lovely gardens that had served royal purposes centuries ago. We paid tribute to the many captivating sculptures along the garden path before enjoying glasses of wine by the water feature.

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Next, we walked toward the Champs Elysees, passing some embellished fountains, lampposts, and structures along the way.  Champs Elysees itself was a wide, commercial boulevard not unlike Hollywood Blvd.  The street was lined with major retailers and overpriced restaurants, and tourists swarmed on every corner. EZ and I passed a huge crowd by a movie theater, which turned out to be awaiting the premiere event for Jurassic World. We also spotted a massive Louis Vuitton store, which must have been Mecca for fashionistas worldwide.

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We soon reached the Arc de Triomphe, which, while certainly impressive, wasn’t as revered as I expected. Instead of standing amidst an awed crowd, the arch sat right in the middle of a major thoroughfare, cars zipping around it without a thought.

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EZ and I quickly grew tired of Champs Elysees, which, while worth seeing, was a bit of a tourist trap.  We sought a more local experience, so we hopped a metro to Canal Saint Martin, a notorious hipster hangout. And indeed, we found many such Parisian youths clustered along the canal drinking their pick of booze.  There was an abundance of “man-buns” in sight…a phenomenon that, to my chagrin, would soon spread to the U.S.  Our stroll along the canal was quite pleasant, and in straying down a side street, we stumbled upon a funky pizza joint known as the Pink Flamingo.  The pizza was fantastic, and the blushing décor was an eclectic mix of American diner nostalgia, exuberant kitschiness, and obscure musical references. We walked around the block and followed up dinner with cocktails at Bar Marcel, a chic, sleek restaurant and bar with man-buns galore.

After enjoying the bar scene for a bit, EZ and I were exhausted…and we had a chock-full day ahead of us. So we headed back to the apartment for some chill time before bed (and a nifty pull-down bed it was, at that! The Parisians sure know how to make good use of space).

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To be continued… Read Day 2