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Tim
Tim

Anniversary Trip To Paris

Clare and I have been a couple for ten years now. I don't think many, if any, people would consider me to be a romantic, and it's true that I usually get the date wrong but I was well aware that 2017 would be tenth anniversary. And so in June last year I thought to myself that it would be nice to take Clare away for a surprise to celebrate, reminded myself that since I think the anniversary is January 22nd then it's really the 21st, and had a look on a calendar to see on what day it would fall. A Saturday? Great!

I would've been prepared to go to just about anywhere if the price were right but my first preference was Paris. That's supposed to be a romantic destination, isn't it? I bit of Googling and I found that it would be possible to fly from Birmingham, our local aiport, leaving in the morning of the Saturday and returning in the evening of the Sunday. Magnificent! No particularly early start and no late finish. So I booked it, half a year in advance. I've never been so prepared in my life! Not long afterwards, I sourced the hotel. It involved a bit of work finding out which arrondissement was where, but I found something at a reasonable price in the fifth or, more descriptively, bordering the south side of the Seine not far from Notre Dame. Now the trick was making sure that Clare didn't want us to make plans to go away ...

Clare was still concerned in December about how busy January would prove to be and it put me in an awkward spot. Would it do more harm than good to take her away if she had work to do at weekends? So I adopted the best tactic I could think of: I approached the subject of going away for our anniversary whilst we were eating a meal and she was most of the way through a bottle of wine, knowing that she wouldn't read too much into it. As it happens, she felt that she'd be OK ... but then, of course, I had to point out that she needed to leave the weekend free because I had something in mind. She asked me a few times and, as usual, can't read past my dead-panning, so she went into January believing that we would be travelling to Rhyl to watch a darts match. She put a brave face on it but, I suppose fairly, wasn't too happy that she wouldn't be allowed a lie-in on the Saturday after a heavy week. To be fair, she didn't know that we were catching a flight at 09:15.

We set off, with the aid of a satnav, not long after 07:00. I had told Clare that we could stop en route to get breakfast, then decided to get a McDonald's breakfast anyway, ready for when she woke up. That proved to be useful because the ice on the windows was so steamed up that it took over ten minutes to clear. At least I could do that whilst Clare was in bed, and not get caught out whilst we had a plane to catch. Clare did question whether I'd got the details entered correctly into the satnav: I'd told her that we had to be on the road at 07:00 and a lie-in wasn't possible, yet we appeared only to be travelling 18 miles. Fortunately, she accepted my answer (which was truthful, though should've led to more questions) that we had to go somewhere else first. That somewhere else was the car park. "Are we getting a flight?" came out of her mouth as we pulled up, and I asked her whether she'd remembered her passport. I had it really. One quick check that she didn't need a toiletries bag later, we were boarding the bus and she had a Paris guidebook in her hand.

One wholly uneventful trip later, we touched down in Paris, barely an hour after having left Birmingham. Everything seemed to be going well, although we weren't to know that the airport had decided to have just a skeleton crew manning passport control. We and the people from several other flights spent a lot of time standing still, wondering why nearly every booth was unattended. This would prove not to be a one-off problem.

We bought train tickets from the airport (10€ each) and got off, about an later and having seen some gritty, industrial neighbourhoods, not far from where our hotel was. The first thing we saw when we emerged above ground was Notre Dame, excellent confirmation that we were indeed in Paris and not far from where we needed to be. And so we headed off with our hotel in mind, but with a slight detour: our map indicated that the Panthéon was nearby and, having seen the Roman equivalent last year, we thought we'd compare. It unexpectedly required us to head uphill but we didn't mind once we turned a corner and caught site of it:

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Pretty big!

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And then we headed downhill in the direction of our hotel and checked in, dropped off our bags, and headed out again. Our first destination was the Jardin du Luxembourg, which meant we were crossing into a new arrondissement already. Maybe Paris isn't that big? The Jardin is owned by the French Senate and would normally be a beautiful sight. This was January, though, so we had to imagine what it would look like when life springs back:

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The Senate meets in the palace:

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The basin is supposed to be home to model sailboats. There was no chance of that at the moment, when even the majority of the water running from the fountain had frozen!

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We'd caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower in the misty distance, so decided to head to it via the Invalides. The dome confirmed we were in the right area:

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We came to a temporary standstill because of an anti-Trump march but later continued back along our original route, which took us to the Parc du Champ de Mars. As with the Jardin du Luxembourg, it doesn't look at its best in January, but it did its job of helping Paris's most prominent landmark stand out:

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We headed across the Seine

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and saw the tower from the other side

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before beginning the walk to the Arc de Triomphe. It and the Eiffel Tower look close together on a map, but it takes a while to cover the distance. We got there in the end, though:

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And then began the very lengthy walk down the Champs d'Elysée. Again, January didn't do it any favours, and we were there at the point when the light is fading but the street lights aren't on yet. With no leaves on the trees, it wasn't particularly impressive. We enjoyed seeing Cleopatra's Needle, though it is dwarfed by the Wheel:

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And then it was time to stroll through the Tuileries before capturing a glance at where we had just come from:

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The end of the Tuileries was marked by the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel

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beyond which lay the Pyramide and the courtyard of the Louvre:

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We hadn't eaten in around ten hours, so we were feeling hungry. The first job, though, was to find the FNAC store and buy some Astérix books. I'm a collector and the fact that the FNAC was marked on our map made it hard to say no. It wasn't the easiest place to find because it was part of an underground shopping centre called les Halles, the foreground to which was a building site, but we got there in the end and Clare kindly bought me the missing volumes to finish my collection. And then we crossed the Pont Neuf, stopped to admire the view, and headed in the direction of our hotel but intending to find a reasonably priced restaurant en route.

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Restaurant choices happened to be few and far between so we ended up spending a fair bit, but after covering over 13 miles that day, we were happy just to be able to sit down for an hour. We then headed back to our hotel where I, even though it was only 20:30 back in the UK, fell asleep for the night. Clare managed an hour of reading before tiredness got the better of her too.

The next morning we got up and went looking for breakfast, rather than pay the extortionate price that the hotel charged. This shouldn't be a problem in France, should it? It was for us in Carcassonne last year, and we noticed here too that most brasseries and restaurants were closed. I suppose that's part and parcel of these establishments being small and privately owned; the people have to take a day off at some point. We came across a place after five minutes' walk or so and had a traditional French breakfast, before strolling back to our hotel to exchange anniversary presents (since I'd fallen asleep before we could the night before) and check out. Clare got me several novels in Spanish (in preparation for a holiday to Fuerteventura I'm going on with my family later this year), and I got her a proper engagement ring, so that she didn't have to continue wearing the ringpull I'd offered her eight years ago when I had even less money than I do today.

Our hotel was opposite the National History Museum, so it made sense to pop by for a visit. Botanical gardens aren't much to write about in winter though:

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We didn't have any intention of doing anything ambitious. We'd pushed our bodies too hard the day before, so we settled on heading to Montmartre. And that meant passing by Notre Dame again:

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The sky was much clearer than the day before so we got some better views across the river:

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Plus clearer views of the Louvre:

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One thing that you can't say about French breakfasts is that they power you for long. And we had barely eaten the day before, so we decided to track down lunch. As was the case with breakfast, we passed lots of establishments which were closed until chancing on an open one, in which we spent an hour or so. (An hour or so too long for Clare, who was repulsed at the presence of gherkins and vinaigrette on her starter.) And then we left to find Montmartre. It took a fair bit of walking uphill but we got there in the end:

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We still had plenty of time to spare, so we settled down for some wine in a café and then began our trek to the airport. And that's where a nasty surprise was in store for us.

Clare and I aren't strangers to travelling. If you're reading this site, you should know this. We're also not new to travelling without luggage and know full well that if you check in online in advance, you don't need to be at the airport as early as you do if you've got luggage to check in. So we didn't leave the usual two hours that passengers travelling with luggage are advised to. This approach has never caused us any problems.

We reckoned without Charles-de-Gaulle airport, though, which saw fit to have a single, solitary person manning passport control. Well, one person for the EU passports, and three everybody else. And ours wasn't particularly fast, either. Our queue became longer and longer, until emergency action was taken. The second person was much faster, but we were still too far in this queue to benefit quickly. We finally made it through and then found out that our gate was different to the other ones, in that we needed to catch a shuttle. We did this (one arrived within a minute) but were stuck on the spot for several minutes before the doors closed and it took off. We raced from there into security. There were still maybe 30 minutes to go, so although things looked slightly concerning, we weren't desperate. We weren't until we realised that the airport had taken the same approach to staffing the security as with passport control. There were 20 gates, and only two were manned. The minutes ticked by, ever more frustratingly as we heard the same requests made over and over again: "Any liquids? Computer? Please take your boots off. And your belt. And put your coat in here." Sure enough, half of the people in the queue didn't have the common sense to realise that these rules also applied to them and so were holding up the queue. And as we were about to get to our turn, our hearts sank: the boarding pass on our phones deleted itself. There was still ten minutes or so left but the message seemed clear, that boarding had ceased. We explained, were eventually let through and ran to our gate. Too late. We'd missed the flight home.

We were sore and frustrated. We'd never come close to missing a flight before. And we'd never been in an airport which was so chronically understaffed. If there had been even two people on passport control rather than one, we'd have been fine. If there had been three gates on security open, we'd have been fine.

The end result was that we had to buy another ticket. And the cost of those was astronomical. We spent over £500 to get the next aeroplane, instead of overnighting in the airport and taking another flight in the morning. That was £500 that we hadn't bargained for and which really put a downer on the weekend. We're trying to look at it positively. Ten years ago, that £500 would have been a huge problem for us. We're now comfortable enough in life where the only real impact it has, aside from the frustration, is that it's £500 less that we'll be putting into savings or making as overpayments on the mortgage. It's not the crippler that it would've been a decade ago. It still hurts, but at least has served in a philosophical sense to be grateful for what we have and the progress we've made together as a couple.




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