Monday, September 01, 2014

I See London, I See France, Day 6: Versaille, Brought To You By Extra Strength Tylenol Cold

I woke up that morning feeling like death warmed over. Improperly. In a microwave so that death explodes out of its Tupperware container and gets everywhere and all the food you make in that microwave for the rest of the day smells a bit like death and DERAIL OVER. I felt like crap.

I was far from the only one, but at least the other people in my group got to have FUN first. Me, I had a scratchy throat, running nose, and a sinus headache so bad my teeth hurt. I swallowed a pair of Extra Strength Tylenol Cold pills from my stash, and they turned out to be surprisingly effective after only fifteen minutes. Yes, I feel the need to promote Extra Strength Tylenol Cold because in a half hour I felt Woozy But Oddly Excited, which is a far nicer state to be in than Death. Unfortunately, I had no more of those pills with me. Want to know why? Because I gave the rest of them to Meagan (Patient Zero of the Contiki Clap) two days before!

Thankfully, on this trip I discovered that the pharmacy is the Starbucks of Paris. They are everywhere, on every street, on every block, with a bright, flashing green cross on the front so you can't miss them. One block from the Ibis, I went into a pharmacy and had probably my one and only True French Conversation of my Paris experience - one where I didn't forget my verbs and resort to Franglais and one in which the Parisian didn't ignore me or speak to me in English. 

Interesting fact about Paris - Parisians give no fucks about your desire to learn or practice French. If you can't speak it perfectly, they'll interrupt you in English. Because they just don't have the time to put up with you. And you know what? The more I learned about Paris, the more I empathized with the Parisians. Paris is the most visited city in the world and July is its peak travel time. If you've lived in Paris all your life, you kind of have to be rude (or at least brisk) and enforce boundaries if you want to live a normal life and maintain any kind of sanity at all in a city that is constantly being invaded by loud, needy strangers. 

ANYWAY, back to the pharmacy - I asked for cold medicine and kleenex in French and she handed me a box of pills called RhiAdvil and a huge-ass pack of tissues. She also explained to me how many times I should take the pills. I felt rather proud and French when I left, and even more French when I witnessed a Parisian letting her dog poop in the street and flouncing away. Paris!

I had just enough time to grab a cup of tea at the hotel restaurant before everyone had to get on the bus for our day trip to Versailles. Thankfully, I brought along a packet of PopTarts in my purse. Yes, PopTarts in Paris. Sue me. Also thankfully, the Abominable Australian had apparently gotten so drunk the night before that he stayed in bed and missed the bus. Unfortunately, in missing the fun at the French Irish Pub, I'd also missed seeing Anthony twerk. Curses!

After about half an hour, we arrived at Versailles. Versailles!
This was what I was hoping to encounter at Kensington Palace. The rooftops and fence posts glittered with gold leaf and the rough cobblestones wavered in 33-degree heat. Before meeting with our tour guide to explore inside the palace itself, we had an hour to explore the famous gardens.
I didn't do a lot of walking - the cold meds kept me alert and buzzed but physically I felt exhausted before I finished crossing that enormous courtyard. Mostly, I hung out with Lauren from Wisconsin and wandered amiably from shady spot to shady spot, soaking in the warmth, looking at the lovely flowers and shapes and existing while remaining upright.

After an hour, we wandered back to the entrance to begin the interior tour (a few other people decided to doze off their Franco-Irish hangovers on the lawn rather than join us). And that's when Versailles really wowed me.
Seriously, France left me with such a crick in the neck thanks to their gorgeously painted ceilings. Magnificent. Each of the public apartments had a theme based on their usage and the god or goddess painted on the ceiling. The Mars Room, the Diana Room, the Jupiter Room. A lot of it had been restored, but most of the furniture pieces were replicas (the real stuff had all been sold off during the French Revolution), but one of the chandeliers was original and so was the coverlet on Marie Antoinette's bed. It was here the tour manager informed us that queen size beds were actually always larger than king size - as the king was allowed to visit his queen as often as he wished, but not vice versa.

While crowded, there was plenty to look at and the tour guide set a nice pace (which was lovely, since Tour Manager Sophie confided that particular guide had been a bitch on wheels the last time). I just wanted to stare at all of it all day. The decadence, the grandeur, the artwork. Imagine living there all day - and in public. People would even be able to stare at the King and Queen as they ate breakfast. At the end of the trip, I picked up some postcards, magnets, and a large volume on Versailles' history. Gotta love those history books.

Once the tour finished, it was back on the bus. Next on the optionals was a trip to a French perfumery to see how their world-famous fragrances were created. I rejected this option as a) I was still caught up in a massive cold and b) perfume gives me headaches. A good half of our tour group did the same thing - probably because strong smells are not really conductive to overcoming massive Franco-Irish hangovers.

This left me without any serious plans for the rest of the day. I didn't want to spend all of it in my hotel room, and I wanted to socialize, so I followed Melissa and Lisa from Scarborough since they wanted to look at the grand Opera House.

A building, which was, admittedly, magnificent. The setting of The Phantom of the Opera is based on this building. It does have an underground spring. It does have a chandelier that fell and killed a person. Unfortunately, Melissa and Lisa only wanted to take pictures of it, not explore inside it. Well, okay. I could dig it.

Then they walked down the street to Starbucks. Starbucks ... in Paris. An almost ludicrously elegant Starbucks, to be sure (see photo above) - but still a Starbucks. And after that, they were planning on dashing down to the Champs D'Elysees to go shopping. Okay, so I did want to socialize and go with the flow, but I guess I'm an old soul at heart. An old soul who was not up to running, even though my foot was feeling strangely better. So I bid them farewell and went my own way.

But I still didn't have any other solid plans. I tried not to feel lonely and decided to just absorb the atmosphere. I bought a bottle of bubbly water and walked down the avenues back to the Louvre. I briefly contemplated slipping back in to catch a glimpse of Cupid and Psyche but I did not want to face the lines and crowds again. I just didn't want to deal with stress of any kind.

So you know what? I didn't stress out. I didn't tell myself that I had to see ALL the things in the hours I had left until we had to go back to the hotel for our Parisian supper. The heat was more than comfortable once I was in the shade, so I sat under the trees in the Jardin des Tuileries and wrote in my notebook and read my Versailles book for a few pleasant hours until I caught the bus back to the hotel.

On the way back, I asked Sophie what it was like to be a Tour Manager. The training involves a 66-city tour where you take all the options so you know what you're talking about, you never know where you'll be stationed next until four days before your current tour ends, you never see most of your coworkers until the big Contiki Christmas Party (which is always in a different country every year), and the recruitment process is brutal. Sounds like the opposite of a job I'd want, but Sophie loved it. My sister told me later that Contiki Tour Managers also get pushed out once they age past the Contiki limit (35!).

After a rest at the hotel and repacking my souvenirs, I got back on the bus with the others to go to our Parisian supper. The bus dropped us off in Montmartre, in front of an enormous set of stairs carved into a hill. Half our group braved the climb, while the other half (myself included) paid a couple of Euros to take a gondola. When we reached the top of the hill, we all took off for the restaurant.
The restaurant's vibe was ... enthusiastic. It was crowded, hot, and a woman sang "La Vie en Rose" and "Je Ne Regrette Rien" on a karaoke machine at an ear-splitting volume. The first ten minutes felt a bit like being at the France pavilion at Epcot, to be quite honest. It was clear this was a Contiki tourist hotspot - mainly because there was another Contiki tour group nearby taking up another table with an outrageously hot Tour Manager. This dude captivated everyone on our own tour as to his name and identity (Anthony: "I'd bend it like Beckham!").

Not pictured: obscenely hot Tour Manager.

We were then served by a waiter with a goitre the size of a cantaloupe on the back of his neck, who had to shout his orders so loudly to be heard over the singing that the veins bulged on his neck. I had escargot (I watched Christina eat it as my unwitting taster - if she didn't die, I wouldn't), boeuf bourguignon, chocolate cake, cheese, and delicious espresso afterwards.

However, about twenty minutes into the meal - all of us suddenly realized Lauren was missing! When last I'd seen her, she'd decided to fiddle with the gondola's ticket machine (despite it being in French) instead of paying for the tickets in person. She must have gotten on the second gondola, and by the time hers had reached the top, we'd forgotten and left without her! And none of us had known the address or even the name of the restaurant beforehand.

I felt ridiculously guilty - I'd hung out with Lauren a bunch of times over the course of the trip, but I'd totally failed to notice she was on the second gondola. All I could think of at the time was that if it had happened to me, and I'd been left alone, I would have cried all the way back to the hotel. I felt awful. Tour Manager Sophie bought a bottle of wine for Lauren, though, and told us the cost of the Parisian dinner would be refunded for her.

The dinner turned out to be quite pleasant - until the other girls started talking about the Goitre Waiter. As it turned out, he'd grabbed and touched a bunch of my tour mates in weird ways but none of them had spoken up about it at first because they figured, "It's just me, and it's probably just because he's French." Until they shared the stories at the end of the meal, discovered how many of us he'd creeped on, and realized he was actually just a disgusting handsy pervert who likely got away with this shit all the time with tourists under the guise of "when in France!"

Ugh. But after this, I FINALLY got to socialize with alcohol with the rest of the tour - albeit at the hotel bar. Yeah, with almost everyone due to catch a plane or a train the next day, none of us wanted to venture too far, so we stayed at the hotel. We met up with Lauren, apologized, and gave her the wine, and we just sat, talked, and drank. All very fun, although I still regret missing the Franco-Irish bacchanal after the Moulin Rouge.

At the very end of the night, I made two completely boneheaded realizations: a) the reason my foot felt miraculously better that day was because my French cold meds had IBUPROFEN in them (why hadn't I just taken that before?!), and b) my hotel room had a view of the Eiffel Tower the WHOLE TIME and I never realized it until I saw it lit up at night - by day it just looked like another ugly-ass crane. Ha!
Pictured: Ugly-Ass Crane

After that, it was au-revoir Paris, hello home! I am so glad I went on Contiki. I had no panic attacks or major depressive incidents at all, and I actually ate food! There was no stress because everything, including major meals, was arranged ahead of time. There were equal opportunities to see things in groups and to sightsee alone, and really just a fantastic group of people (Abominable Australian excluded).

If I had to be brutally honest - I adored London a million times more than Paris. I loved what I saw in Paris and I'm glad I saw it, but I'm in no great hurry to go back and see more. Meanwhile, I am in love with England (London and Bath, particularly), and I will definitely come back to explore that country more fully.

But that's the joy of Contiki - it's like a tasting menu for hesitant travellers. It gives you the highlights of amazing places within a safe group environment. I've been severely travel-phobic for the last couple of years, but this trip completely renewed my desire to travel to Europe and helped me deal with my anxiety. If you're between the ages of 18-35 and you're nervous about travelling (or at least travelling alone), I cannot recommend Contiki enough. 

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