If you missed my post from earlier this week, you can click here to check it out.
I stared in awe at the monitor in front of me, which tracked the altitude, speed, temperature, and flight time in real-time. I watched as our plane flew over the Empress of Ireland, an ocean liner that sunk in 1914 near Canada, and passed the Gloria Ridge in the Atlantic Ocean. I was amazed while trying to comprehend the hours of engineering and design that went into creating a hunk of aluminum that could fly higher than Mount Everest at temperatures as cold as Antarctica and at speeds that are rarely matched on land or sea. Swiss Air continued its first class vibe and just before we landed, a stewardess handed us damp, warm towels, and unaccustomed to this odd luxury, we followed like sheep as everyone around us began wiping their hands and face – a refreshing end to an enjoyable plane ride.
Our first steps off of the plane and out of an airport that wasn’t located in the United States was in Zurich, a large city in northern Switzerland. The air was crisp and cool, just above freezing with the sun shining through a misty sky. It took us a second to orient ourselves with signs that said “Bahnhof” and “Flughafen” and people chattering rapidly in French and German, but we finally found a station to buy train tickets. Our confused looks and baggage in tow gave us away quickly, as an SBB attendant came over and offered assistance. The first of many train trips drove past the industrial district of the city; bright neon graffiti covered the railroad walls and the old buildings of Europe juxtaposed next to buildings jury-rigged from storage containers and scrap metal was an interesting perspective on the outskirts of this Swiss city. As we moved toward the city center, modern buildings were less and less common while the Renaissance-inspired architecture – symmetrical arrangements of columns, semicircular arches, and ornate domes – had our eyes locked on the beautiful buildings.
The main reason that we were embarking on this jaunt through Europe was that Kierstin was awarded a study abroad scholarship in Switzerland. She had extra luggage that she didn’t want to take with us to our future destinations, and her Swiss host had offered to let her store it. Our first European challenge: navigate the Swiss “strasses” and find her house. This is how we discovered a crutch that we rely on and how the international airwaves kicked it right out from underneath us. I knew that we wouldn’t have cell service abroad, and Kierstin had changed her plan to internationl service. But it was a lot more limited than I thought it was; she could only get texting and had no internet. No internet meant no GPS – no Google Maps telling me exactly where I am and which rights and lefts I need to make. We had no back-up plan in this regard, save for a few maps that I had screenshots of on my phone.
We could still use our GPS in Wifi and plan our route, which is what we did. But when Google tells us to exit a tram and head south toward another street, that’s exactly what we did. We quickly learned that we needed to supplement the right-turn/left-turn directions with an actual map that could give us a better sense of distances and landmarks. Our first walk through Zurich went too far uphill, too far down one street, and too far down another until a friendly Swiss woman listening to her late 1990s Discman stopped and asked us if we needed help. I guess it was pretty obvious that two pedestrians, burdened with large backpacks and rolling luggage, anxious-looking faces staring at cell phones and approaching a dead-end of a road, needed help. She kindly interrupted her walk and accompanied us to the hill that would lead right to Kierstin’s host’s house.
The high-speed rail from Zurich to Paris was three short hours. For most of our sleeping arrangements, we used a service called AirBnB. For those who don’t know about it, it’s a bed and breakfast service where you can make reservations online. The difference between AirBnB and any other bed and breakfast booking service is that AirBnB hosts are anyone with a spare bedroom or an empty apartment. We weren’t staying at an official bed and breakfast; we were just sleeping in “Louis’s apartment”. It might sound strange and risky, but the service acts as a middleman and has a great track record for guests. Since we were a day late, Louis wasn’t in town anymore, and he had his friend meet us. She greeted us in French, and my four years of high school French classes let me struggle through communicating with her. It was messy but successful.
The apartment was tiny, not much bigger than most people’s bedroom, but it was cozy, clean, and modern and had everything that we needed. While new sights and comfortable living arrangements are a must-have for a great trip, one of the best things about traveling is the food. Now, there were plenty of soft breads and savory meats and rich chocolates, but the first night had none of that. Exhausted and starving after over 48 hours of consecutive rides on planes and trains, we microwaved instant ramen noodles and shared a cheap 2 euro bottle of French wine. Nothing more was needed; we were in Europe and happy.
Narrow alleyways with grey brick buildings melding with grey brick roads led us through the Montmartre neighborhoods. Tiny French cafes with small tables filled by locals and tourists smoking cigarettes and sipping espressos from round white mugs scattered the streets like a typical Parisian painting. We found our way to the Christmas Market, the first of many that would fill our holiday trip through Europe. Small wooden makeshift chalets were selling handmade crafts, authentic food, and winter drinks and Christmas lights decorated the streets. A vendor sold hot chestnuts on the street, the first time in my own life that that earworm of a Christmas song has had any relevance to me. We found a lively stand that had two griddles frying fresh crepes, and my limited French was enough to order breakfast. The creamy white batter was spread thing onto a hot circular griddle, then raked smooth until the golden-brown, soft, thin cake could be topped with creamy chocolate and fresh bananas. Another booth sold cups of hot chocolate, made fresh by melting discs of dark chocolate in hot milk and labeled as “Chocolat Chaud Ancienne” (ancient hot chocolate), which we bought to wash down our delectable breakfast and warm ourselves, from our frigid fingers to deep inside our chests. Besides rich hot chocolate and delicious crepes, the street market also had stalls selling various trinkets and crafts. In a small city square, painters sat in front of portraits, charging modest rates to fabricate a unique work of art for customers. We browsed for a while, occasionally stumbling upon intriguing wares but mostly just appreciating the bustling cafés scattered through the boulevards and narrow French streets rife with electric scooters and bordered by tall, colorful buildings with elaborate iron balcony railings, twisting and curving in front of long windows decorated with potted plants. The cobblestone streets and historical buildings keep Paris frozen romantically in time and were really a beauty to behold.
Now, if you’ve been following along, you might remember that some unfortunate events occurred on our journey to Europe. It was a roof springing a leak just as the rain began to pour, as the Chinese proverb goes. Well, the metaphorical rainfall continued. When we had arrived in Zurich, Kierstin wasn’t quite released from her worries. She was convinced that our baggage wasn’t going to make it. Her sign of relief when her black rolling suitcase rode out on the baggage claim track might have echoed across the airport. I remained unconvinced that everything was okay. And as it turned out, the airline had not managed to find my luggage and bring it to Europe. The lost luggage department of Swiss Air was incredibly helpful and assured me that they would ship my bag to wherever I was as soon as they found it. They also said that Swiss Air would reimburse me if I need to purchase an extra outfit or any other necessity for the day. This situation lead to more bad luck for us, when we left my new shirt (along with Kierstin’s water bottle) on the train to Paris – this time, our misfortune was our own fault.
Well, while strolling at the top of the Montmartre neighborhood, Kierstin’s phone rang. Swiss Air’s courier service was at our apartment waiting to drop the bag off. There was nowhere to safely leave the luggage, and so we sprinted downhill, past the markets and restaurants while weaving in between other tourists and locals. We found the delivery driver, and breathless, I muttered apologies and excuses and was happy to have my luggage again. It was a Christmas miracle: I finally had clothes to change into! After switching my garments, It was up the hills again, this time stopping at the Montmartre Cemetery, first opened in 1825 after other cemeteries became so overcrowded that citizens were banned from burying their deceased loved ones within Paris’ city limits. The cemetery includes notable artists and inventors, like Adolphe Sax (inventor of the saxophone) and was an eerie display of the extravagant French graveyard. Eventually, after a short climb, we found our final destination: Sacré-Coeur.
Sacré-Coeur was built at the summit of the Montmartre area. It is a modern building, just barely a hundred years old, but the complex domes jutting into the sky upon massive piers harken to a different time. Massive arching windows were not placed conservatively, and patterns of concrete bulbs, crosshatches, and fanning blocks filled the outer walls. It was Christmas, and so the deep groan of organ music emanated from the inside, and we peaked in to see nuns gathering around the pulpit and a clergyman delivering his sermon. Columns towered overhead in the basilica, imparting structural integrity but also directing our view toward the massive mosaic that depicted a golden-hearted Jesus with arms outstretched and surrounded by numerous saints and religious figures. Outside, the top of Montmartre granted a vantage point of Paris, an incredible view that mixed the modern and the bygone, giving a glimpse of the rich history entwined with the contemporary relevance of this massive city. As the sun was escaping below the horizon, we marched back downhill, stopping at a small café window and ordering our first cup of mulled wine. Reading the words “vin chaud” (French for “hot wine”) summoned memories of a terrible port wine that we once drank; the combination of the high alcohol content and imbibing the fortified vino at just too high of a temperature had us inhaling stinging ethanol vapors. The steaming reddish drink smelled more like a mild punch than cleaning supplies, and chunks of oranges, purple from soaking in the hot wine, swam around the drink. The first sip warmed me up like chicken soup. It tasted more like hot sangria, sweet and fruity, an unexpected delight. Before finding somewhere for dinner, I had to try the roasted chestnuts, and we ordered a small bag. The meaty nut, slightly mushy on the inside, was not to our liking. At least we got to try it!
Dinner was at a café, where Kierstin had pasta and I ordered croque monsieur, a classic French café dish that consists of two pieces of warm cheesy toast, where the cheese is melted on the outside, sandwiching thick slices of ham. This popular Parisian snack was a staple in my high school French lessons when learning about how to order food, and so I had to get it. It was no Michelin-rated restaurant, but it was good food on a budget. After our quick dinner, we boarded the metro – destination: Champs-Élysées. Just over a mile long, this boulevard is the location of the popular tourist site, the Arc de Triomphe. It was also where hundreds of wooden huts had been erected for the holiday season for Paris’ largest Christmas Market. Bright lights illuminated the streets, trees decorated with gold and silver bulbs. A Ferris wheel could be seen from the opposite end of the avenue, marking one end of the crowded street. We strolled through various stalls, some filled with art from local photographers and sculptors. Some sold food and drink, with plump sausages of all colors and fillings or huge cauldrons of hot wine and rich hot chocolate. Others had candies and chocolates, and we ordered chi-chis, fried dough covered in sugar like a churro sans cinnamon and dipped in warm Nutella, and we purchased a small chocolate bell that was hiding a fat, gooey marshmallow and a baked waffle square inside.
The Arc de Triomphe was a short walk from the market. This famous French monument that honors French veterans from the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars glowed with orange lights in the Paris night. Its size and presence was unexpected, and we took some time to marvel at the structure on that crisp evening. The Arc also stands over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which we passed on visiting. The tomb memorializes those who fought and perished in both world wars but whose identities remain unknown. After our brief encounter with the Arc de Triomphe, we battled against the frigid air and made our way back to our apartment and warm bed for the night. Reflecting on it now, it is hard to believe that that was how we spent our Christmas – forming memories that will last forever.