Christmas as a Parisian Novice

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The Eiffel Tower - an iconic symbol of Paris

The Eiffel Tower – an iconic symbol of Paris

My first visit to Paris was a remarkable experience, which I will never forget. I booked the Dover-Calais ferry and drove with my wife from London in the cold Christmas weather. We intended to stay until the New Year in an IBIS hotel located in a suburb of Paris, Épinay-sur-Seine, and visit the city every day.

It was a great feeling to arrive in Paris and see the city of light, which never sleeps – a modern city with a very deep sense of history. I will never forget when I drove through, passing the canals and seeing the monuments. It was like a huge open-air, living museum, going from one gallery to another. It was love at first sight.

It was dark in the evening, Christmas lights illuminated the whole city. It was bright just like daytime. The streets were very busy, full of shoppers marching from one shop to another. I was fascinated seeing The Palais Garnier, the Paris Opera House. I parked my car in a small one-way street nearby and walked to a nearby main road, there was an underground station with a big-lightened sign of “Métropolitain”. I did not make note of the road name. I thought the name of the station was sufficient to return to my car. We visited the Opera house and walked towards Place-de-la-Concorde and then decided to return home. Ahead I saw the sign – “Métropolitain” – which looked exactly the same as the sign I had noted in my head, but it was not the right street.

Métropolitain © John Rowell

Métropolitain © John Rowell

A little anxious and confused, I approached people who were passing by. Some just ignored me. I told a French man in English that we were looking for Métropolitain Station. He pointed towards the station. I asked an American couple who were tourists. The guy said, why don’t you go inside the station and find out, so I approached the woman behind the counter. I asked her the same question and she replied, “C’ est Métropolitain”. I asked again, “but this is not the same.” She laughed, “Tous sont Metro de Paris, ils sont tous de Métropolitain.” She continued in broken English, “All … Métropolitain.”

I finally realised my mistake and understood that Métropolitain is the symbol for metro stations in Paris, not the name of one station. It was just the beginning of our nightmare. How were we going to find the car? It took us nearly over two hours walking through many streets which looked the same. It was a miracle that I finally managed to find my car.

One day, late in the evening, we decided to eat in a recommended Lebanese restaurant in a street very close to the Champs-Élysées. We parked close-by and from where I could watch my car more easily. Every now and then I looked through the window. Suddenly I saw a car at the top of the road shaken back and forward. It was stationary, but was moving up and down. After a minute or so, I saw the car in the front come out and leave. The waiter saw my astonishment and said,  ”The cars in Paris are parked bumper to bumper, difficult to park, and impossible to leave.”  This is our French drivers move their cars.

One morning at Christmas, we walked around the small town. All the shops were closed and, although we were happy with our hotel we decided to check the prices of other local hotels. At the Hotel-de-Ville I approached the building, but the door was closed. After a few minutes a man opened a window and I asked him, “how much is it per night?”  he replied, ”Qu’est-ce que vous voulez.” I repeated my question. He said,  ”Il est fermé”. I could not understand him. I asked him again, “I just want to know the prices”. He shouted,  ”Il est Noël. Le bureau est fermé” and closed the window. We wondered what kind of hotel it was and left.

Hotel-de-Ville: the home of local administration in Paris for over 650 years

Hotel-de-Ville: the home of local administration in Paris for over 650 years

When we were in the centre of Paris, I saw another Hotel-de-Ville. A magnificent large palatial. I suggested to my wife that it was possibly a five-star star branch of the same hotel.  Visiting the tourist office to get directions to some sights It was only then that I found out that Hotel-de-Ville is actually the city’s municipal office!

There were many uniformed officers and police cars at Paris city center. I was curious to find out what was going on. It seemed that they were mainly engaged near the Sorbonne University. I went closer, passing the guards and crowds. When I approached the university’s building in the heart of the Latin Quarter, I found an amazing architectural design, a work of art, full of character. The building which was founded in 1257 by Robert de Sorbon, is the largest university in France and a center of knowledge, research and learning.

The security guard at the Sorbonne stopped us at the gate. He said that only students are allowed to get in. I insisted that I was a tourist and I just wanted to look around. He refused and we had to leave. I could not give up. I returned one-hour later and showed my old student card from the University of London to a different guard. He noticed my younger picture and hesitated for a minute, but eventually let me and my wife entering the Sorbonne. There were many placards and posters, protesting against government on the walls. There was a large courtyard surrounded by ancient façade of historical buildings comprising offices and rooms.

I entered a few lecture rooms. All the walls and benches were designed in mahogany coloured woods. It was very inspiring, seating in a lecture theater with a 12th century feeling. If I had time, I would certainly come there to study.

the Sorbonne © Mohammed Reza Amarini

the Sorbonne © Mohammed Reza Amirinia

It was New Year Eve. I was told that there are celebrations in different parts of the city including the Eiffel Tower and the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. We decided to go the Champs-Élysées, which is a long boulevard, located between the place de la Concorde, and the Place Charles de Gaulle and the Arc de Triomphe. The Christmas lights were illuminating everywhere. There were nicely decorated snowman and other animals designed with lights in the small gardens near the boulevard. People were gathering from everywhere. The police had very tough control, not allowing  bottles of alcohol  through the barriers, but some people managed to hide them. Despite the freezing cold, more and more people were arriving. The street and the pavements were full of men and women, young and old, even young children.

Eiffel Tower with fireworks

Eiffel Tower with fireworks

It was near midnight and people were getting more and more cheerful. Finally the clock ticked at 12 and became New Year. The cheers and laughs mixed in the air by fire works. But to my surprise, the Christmas lights were switched off. I felt that it is unusual to switch off the light when the celebration just started. This was many years ago. When I recently researched it, I was told that the lights are on until 8th January. The Christmas lights are switched off after midnight to save energy but not on New Year’s Eve.

We stayed ten days in Paris and had a fantastic time. I loved everything about this romantic city and would never hesitate to return to experience it again and again.

But I promised myself that I would learn the language.


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