The River Seine on a cloudy fall day.
© Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved.
The River Seine on a cloudy fall day.
© Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved.
By the time I’d asked the bus driver how much the fare was to Pont de Rungis…
Excusez-moi, monsieur. Combien?*
…and bought two RER C tickets to the 7th arrondissement…
Bonjour madam! Champ de Mars, deux billet.
…I felt like my entire supply of French had run out. For months I had tried to commit to heart those French phrases that I was likely to need, but nothing — not the haphazard attempts to learn the language, not the overzealous research on what to see and where to go — quite prepared me for the reality, for the unrealness, of being in Paris.
There was never, as far as I can recall, a moment in my life when I promised myself: “Someday, I’m going to see the Eiffel Tower.” I say traveling is my addiction, and it is, but my wanderlust had as yet limited itself to the proximate (Southeast Asia) and the ultimate (Antarctica, when I retire). Europe, I thought, was for the rich — and I wasn’t — so I didn’t even bother pining for it.
And then, one afternoon, my sister called up with interesting news: a low-cost airline had just launched its Paris flights**, and return tickets were on sale for as low as PHP 15,000. Did I want to go?
We rapidly went through the facts: I had just gotten married and spent most of my savings on the wedding. Her project had just ended, which meant a significant drop in her income. Paris was one of the most expensive cities in the world. We didn’t have a travel fund.
“What the heck,” we said. “Let’s do it.”
And so we found ourselves, that October morning, in a place we had never even dared to dream of visiting.
Paris isn’t all sparkling lights and beautiful buildings. The train from Orly passed through deserted areas, slightly dilapidated houses, and open-air stations that seemed in the middle of nowhere. We went underground as we entered the heart of Paris and gradually saw stations with familiar names — St Michel-Notre Dame, Musée d’Orsay. And then: Champ de Mars. We alighted and broke down in nervous giggles when we had trouble getting through the turnstile because of our luggage. Finally, we ascended a flight of stairs to street level…and were greeted by the sight of the stunning Eiffel Tower.
OMG! We were in Paris! We were actually in Paris!
To our left was the River Seine, bluish gray and beautiful. The bridges and buildings were gorgeous and unmistakably European. Even the walkway by the river bank, with its shrubs and flowers and classic park benches, was just breathtakingly lovely. It was love at first sight, and as we gazed around in awe and wonder, my sister and I had the same feeling: we could live here.
* I’m not even sure this was the right way to say it!
** Now discontinued, unfortunately.
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Notre Dame – FREE
Sacre Coeur – FREE
Saint Chapelle – €8,50 (PHP 525)
*Exchange rate (as of 4/4/2014): €1 = PHP 61.677
“Visiting Paris? Here’s a quick look at entrance fees to the city’s most popular tourist spots” was created by LSS for travel site Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved.
Parisians in particular have a reputation for being aloof and snobbish, and as tourists from a third-world country, we were prepared to be ignored or looked down on. Surprisingly, none of the French people we met were even remotely rude. Hotel receptionists were friendly and helpful. An elderly gentleman on the train valiantly tried to engage us in conversation even though his English and our French were minimal to nonexistent. The French doctor who shared our couchette to Venice treated us to a breakfast of brioche and coffee. A middle-aged lady in Nice asked my opinion on whether she should buy black or red boots. (Red!) And two guys in suits took the table next to ours at a KFC and spoke to us in Tagalog! Of course, it helps if you are polite yourself, smile a lot, and make attempts – even laughably poor ones – at speaking French.
Not everyone, of course, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve bought a sandwich or encountered guys selling Eiffel Tower miniatures and gotten asked, “Philippines?” I have no idea how they do it because even I can’t always distinguish Filipinos from other Southeast Asians.
It is known to be one of the most expensive cities in the world, but there are many quintessentially Parisian things you can do for free. A stroll along the River Seine is romantic and invigorating and costs absolutely nothing. The Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, and other museums have free-entrance days; entrance to the Notre Dame cathedral is free every day. The Jardin du Luxembourg and local favorite Place des Vosges – free. And there’s no charge for taking photos in front of the ultimate Paris landmarks: the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. You’ll have to pay to go up either structure, but do you really have to? Many say the best view of the Paris skyline is from Sacré Coeur in Montmartre, which is – you guessed it – free.
My first visit to Paris was in the fall of October 2011.
When my sister and I emerged from the Champ de Mars train station, we were still wearing wearing the clothes we had on for our 13-hour flight: in my case, a light dress, leggings and Sanuks. It was still in the neighborhood of noon — too early to check in the hotel — so we decided to open our suitcases right there by the River Seine and change into something more appropriate (and photo-worthy). I slipped on my black boots and put on my black coat…and the most unexpected thing happened.
“Alimuot lagi!” I exclaimed in surprise to my sister. That was the last thing I expected to be feeling — too warm — in Paris, where I’d expected to be cold and shivering. The temperature at that point was perhaps only a little colder than in Bukidnon.
It was too good to last though.
I wore my black trenchcoat over two layers of thin clothing for our visit to the Musee d’Orsay later that day. I also brought a scarf to wrap around my neck. With all those layers, it was actually rather hot inside the temperature-controlled museum. However, when we went out at past 8 in the evening, it was COLD! My sister heroically lent me her gloves and her beanie but the chill still sunk all the way to my bones. And the hotel was still an hour’s walk away! When we finally slipped into our room, tired but finally out of the cold, it was only too easy to crawl under the warm covers and fall into deep sleep.
Fast forward to winter, January 2014. We were arriving in a train from Nice, where the cold weather was pleasantly mild, but I knew Paris would be different. As we pulled into Gare de Lyon, I added layers to my layers until I was wearing — no kidding — a thermal shirt, two sweaters, three layers of tights, a thick trench, a beanie, scarf and gloves. I was bundled up, to say the least. Would you believe I stepped off the train and started shivering? The weird thing is I didn’t really even feel the cold but my body registered it nonetheless. I shook, my teeth chattered, until I finally added a down vest to my ensemble. All this just to cross the street to our hotel!
We entered the lobby and the guy at the reception cheerfully booked us in. For small talk, we asked him about the weather and he replied, “It’s been a mild winter this year. Tonight is rather warm, actually.” I hated him.
I still remember the exact way I felt: climbing up the stairs of Champ de Mars station with bated breath, catching my first glimpse of the soaring Eiffel Tower, walking my first few steps along the River Seine, and thinking to myself — with a heady mix of wonder and contentment and heart-squeezing longing — “Wow. Wow. I could live here.”
I’m happy where I actually live. Cebu, my beloved island in the heart of the Philippines, is my little corner of the world. My family is here; it is Home. But like a tree firmly rooted in fertile soil, whose branches nonetheless spread joyfully into the air, I constantly long for the experience of immersing myself in a different world.
The thing is: I’m just an ordinary person. I’m not one of those people who can afford to skip, hop, and jump across countries with nonchalant ease. I can’t name-drop Prague or the Galapagos Islands like they’re just in the next barrio. I also can’t quit my job and backpack my way across the world. I have bills to pay, mouths to feed, rainy days to save up for. I have responsibilities, ties…and it’s not that I can’t give them up, it’s that I don’t want to give them up, not for the world. And yet, despite that…
I still dream of catching — as the song goes — a midnight train going anywhere. I’ve done it before; I know I can do it again. I know it. If you’re like me, a small-town girl (or guy!) with big travel dreams, I hope the stories, tips, and tidbits in this site help you catch your own midnight train. Welcome, fellow wanderer!
I’m a Cebu-based travel writer who’s always dreaming about going somewhere. My family is the most important thing in the world to me and one of the items on top of my bucket list is to take them all to Rome, and maybe a few other European cities, in the next 2 years. I believe in kindness, thankfulness, integrity, and the importance of being able to laugh at yourself. (The latter will get you through anything, I think.)
You can read about my travel philosophy here: The Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains Travel Manifesto.
PS – I’ve noticed people have been stumbling a bit on how to address me as I haven’t got my name displayed anywhere. Please call me Gaya. 🙂