It’s possible I read too much post-apocalyptic fiction…

Recently I’ve been considering buying an apartment in Paris. Not immediately, but as a long-term goal. There are a variety of reasons why this might not be a terrible idea.

In the last few days, though, I’ve been struggling with a big item in the ‘don’t do it’ column. It’s not the exchange rate or the cost of a management company. My biggest fears are for the longer-term. What if there’s another financial crisis that tanks the travel industry? What happens when the oil prices go back up? What happens when the price of oil limits international travel to the rich few?

Basically, what if the zombie apocalypse?

And it’s a little bit ridiculous, but it’s also a little bit not. When things get worse – and the way we’re burning through the world’s resources, things are going to get worse in my lifetime – my investment will be on the far side of an ocean. Buying something local would be the sensible choice, because at least that way I would have a roof over my head.

I just… don’t want to let myself get talked out of this idea so easily. Clearly an apartment in Paris is not the sensible choice. It’s the crazy choice. The adventurous choice. That’s why it’s scary.

Maybe it’s okay to have the fears, to think the thoughts and come up with some contingency plans. The trick is to not get overwhelmed by them. That’s the part I’m struggling with this week.

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that’s a lot to live up to

I’ve been reading quite a lot about Paris recently. I finished Dawn of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Monet, Zola, Bernhardt, Eiffel, Debussy, Clemenceau, and Their Friends and have moved on to the follow-up, Twilight of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Picasso, Stravinsky, Proust, Renault, Marie Curie, Gertrude Stein, and Their Friends through the Great War. (Both are by Mary McAuliffe.)

I give you their full titles to bring home the point that I’m reading about a lot gifted people who worked hard and succeeded in fields about which they were passionate.

Which is partly inspiring, and partly depressing.

I feel as though I should be working harder. But before I can even do that I need to work out where my passion lies. What is it that I have to say? What is it that I want to shout from the rooftops? I’m pretty sure that ‘I don’t know’ is not an acceptable answer.

And it folds back into earlier thoughts. When I tried to put together ideas about where I want to be five years from now, I didn’t have any kind of concrete goal for my writing. Other than just… getting better. I feel I should have a passion project. I should want to write a novel, or a travelogue, or something.

But I haven’t worked out what that is yet. And I’m not sure where to start.

Crazy? Probably…

So… I’m considering buying an apartment in Paris. I’ve tried to talk about this with a couple of friends, and when I do I frame it as… a joke, or a mental exercise. A pie-in-the-sky game that’s just fun to consider.

Except, I’m seriously considering buying an apartment in Paris.

If I trace the idea back to its root, my dad is to blame. We’ve played pie-in-the-sky all my life. I learned the game from him. And then a couple of weeks ago, my 76-year-old father, who had in the recent past talked about down-sizing to a small apartment or even a retirement home, impulse-bought a 15-acre property in the countryside.

When he first brought up the idea, I thought we were playing the game again.

“Well, in that case,” I said, “I’d like an apartment in Paris, please.” Paris got into my bones when I was there this past October, and I’m planning to go back again this fall.

And then my mother called me back two hours later to tell me my dad had bought the place. He’s selling up in the city and moving out there at the end of the summer. All by himself. I have a whole separate spate of concerns about that.

Inspired – sort of – by his lunacy, I spent a couple of hours poking at my own insane idea. And it’s not quite as crazy as it sounds.

As part of my where-do-I-want-to-be-in-five-years navel gazing, I’ve been thinking it’s time to consider buying a house. The problem with that is, due to my job, I move twice a year. In the summer I work at a large theatre in a small town, in the winter I work in television in the big city. I can’t afford to buy anything in the city – and even if I could, I’d need to sublet it for eight months of the year, which is an enormous pain in the ass. If I buy in the small town, I either have to commute two hours each way to work in the city in the winter, or I find a part-time retail job in the small town and all my travel money goes towards the mortgage.

But if I buy an apartment in Paris, I can have an agency rent it out to travellers during the high tourist season and then have a base in Europe for my travels in the winter. There are certain problems this plan doesn’t solve, but I like it the best out of all my current options.

I’m going to do some research and some math, and see if rental income would realistically cover the mortgage. I want to talk to the agency I found online and get a serious idea of the costs involved and what they charge for their services. But this might just be the five-year project I’ve been looking for.

Step one: 1,700 kilometres by train

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Mountains! View out the window of the train, travelling through the Alps between France and Italy.

On Tuesday morning I left the little apartment in the Canal Saint Martin area of Paris that had been home for a week. I wasn’t going to miss the five flights of stairs or the loft bed I was always terrified of falling out of, but I enjoyed having a place that felt like home. I spent enough years living in hotels while I was on tour to appreciate the luxury of a kitchen and a washing machine.

This was the beginning of my big adventure – overland (and oversea) travel from Paris to Athens. The whole journey involved three days, two long-haul trains, an overnight ferry, a replacement bus, two short-haul trains, and several taxis. And I was so excited to get started!

I boarded my train to Italy at the Gare de Lyon. The first class ticket was less than 20€ more expensive than the regular train ticket (which was already pretty cheap, considering) so I splurged. For a 7-hour journey, I figured it was worth it.

The seat was comfortable with lots of leg room. And it reclined. It was a solo seat by the window, so I didn’t have anyone next to me, either. I got to just curl up and watch the scenery unfold.

It’s weird, if I’m on the move, I can sit for hours and not get bored. Even after seven hours on a train, I didn’t want the journey to be over. Watching out the window is like a meditation for me. I love it. (The only exception to this tends to be aeroplanes, because I’m so physically uncomfortable.)

I had this dream that the train journey would feel like some kind of compressed visit to the parts of France I never seem to get to. I didn’t exactly get my wish. Large sections of the train line passed through industrial areas (which shouldn’t really surprise me) or else had trees or walls or banks lining the path that blocked my view. The further south we got the better it was, though, and when we hit the Alps, the mountain vistas more than made up for any small disappointments.

I arrived in Milan around 6pm. The plan was, originally, to walk to the hotel – I had a map prepared and everything. When I booked my tickets in August, this seemed like a fine idea. I hadn’t realized it would be dark when I arrived in Milan, and wandering around by myself near the train station in a strange city in the dark suddenly didn’t seem like a great idea.

My plans to spend an hour or two exploring the city before bed went the way of the dodo for the same reason.

So, sadly, my night in Milan was underwhelming on several fronts. The hotel room was freezing (it was colder in Milan than in Paris), there was something crusty on the bedspread (which I stripped off instantly – I slept under the spare blanket from the closet and my thickest sweatshirt instead), and the pesto linguine I ordered at a nearby restaurant was depressingly mediocre.

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Slightly crooked view out the train window, travelling south down the coast of Italy.

The next morning, I did get to walk to the train station, though. It was just barely light outside and I got a bit of a look at the city. Much more modern and glossy than any other city I’ve encountered in Europe, full of the tall glass buildings I usually associate with North America.

This second train journey was a little less comfortable, but the views made up for it. There had been a frost overnight, and as the sun came up, a thick, white fog hovered just above the ground, softening all the edges.

In the afternoon, we reached the coast and travelled with a view of palm trees and sandy beaches and turquoise water for a long while. It looked like it should be delightfully warm out there, but every person we passed was bundled into scarves and hats and puffy jackets.

This time, at the end of the eight-hour ride I was actually ready to get off and stretch my legs. Two full days on a train had stretched even my love of travel, and I was feeling tired and rumpled.

It was four in the afternoon, I was laden with bags, and I still had a couple of hours to kill before I could check in for my overnight ferry ride. I had hoped to find a restaurant in the train station where I could hunker down for a bit, but the station was both tiny and under construction. Frustrated, I staggered outside. I didn’t want to go too far from the taxi rank, and couldn’t walk far with all my gear. My giant backpack screamed ‘tourist’, and I felt a bit like a walking target.

I crossed the roundabout outside the train station, and I am sad to admit, I have never been so pleased to see a McDonald’s in all my life. Clean bathrooms, familiar food, and somewhere safe to sit and read my book for a couple of hours: Sold!

An hour or so of familiarity and calm helped to recharge my batteries, and I found my excitement again by the time I jumped in a taxi to head to the port.

Next step: overnight ferry across the Aegean Sea.

Writers’ Workshop in Paris

I had to talk myself into going to the writers’ workshop at Shakespeare and Company last Sunday at least a dozen times. Which is ironic, since my original plan for my time in Paris was something of a writer’s retreat.

I had done quite a lot of research into the English-language literary scene in Paris. There are a handful of writers’ workshops in the city, and I had intended to attend several of them. But plans change, and the trip became much more activity-based, and other than blogging, I didn’t write anything while in Paris at all.

It was only in writing about Shakespeare and Company for this blog that I remembered the writers’ workshops – the bookstore plays host to at least two of them. And when I dug a little deeper to find the details again, I realized there would be one on the Sunday evening that I was in town.

Saturday evening, I went back and forth on the idea several times. I had a science fiction short story I wanted to workshop, but what if it wasn’t literary enough? What if someone stole my ideas – I didn’t know the people involved, and I was supposed to bring copies for them.What if I didn’t get the copies back? (… yes, I know. I didn’t say this was rational.) What if the people were mean?

I decided I would prepare my piece and decide at the last minute if I wanted to go or not. I saved my story to a memory stick and looked up the address of a local photocopy shop where I could get it printed out.

Sunday was a perfect Parisian day. I slept in a little, then spent the early afternoon wandering around the Ile St-Louis, which is the oldest part of town and an area I hadn’t ever explored before. It’s a beautiful neighbourhood of narrow streets and boutique shops and very, very expensive apartments. There is no metro and very little in the way of street traffic.

The sun came out and the weather was mild, and I whiled away an hour or two sitting on a bench by the banks of the Seine reading my book. This was exactly what I wanted from my Paris vacation.

Later in the afternoon, I met up with a friend for tea. We worked together over the summer in Canada, and she is now directing a play in Paris. It was wonderful to see a friendly face after spending several days on my own. She took me to a cozy cafe in the Marais district and we sipped tea and chatted for two hours.

If we’re still chatting, I won’t cut it off to go and do the workshop, I thought. I’d rather spend time with my friend. But at 5:30 she had to head off anyway, and I had plenty of time to make it to the book shop.

I had already failed at getting my story printed out. I found the printing shop earlier in the day with no problem, but I hadn’t thought about the fact that it was Sunday, and the shop was closed. I spent the hour before the workshop wandering through the university neighbourhood on the Left Bank, trying and failing to find somewhere else to print my story.

If I don’t have copies of my story, there’s no point in going to the workshop, I thought. What if it’s weird that I’m there with no story? What if I’m the only one?

What if the other stories are bad?

What if I have nothing to say?

What if the people are weird and pretentious?

Finally I decided that if I was trying this hard to find a way out of going to the workshop, the workshop was probably something I needed to do. As the saying goes: find what scares you and do it.

Even so, I nearly walked out while I was waiting for it to start. I had to promise myself that if I really didn’t like it, I was allowed to leave after it started.

The workshop was, of course, just fine. There was one person I wanted to jab with a fork and one person who got super-defensive about his work, but that’s about par for the course in terms of workshops. None of the works we read were terrible. And about 2/3 of the other attendees were there with no piece to workshop.

The structure of the workshop was a little different. I was used to reading the piece, and then going around the room twice – the first time everyone says what they think the piece did well, and then everyone offers constructive criticism. It was a classroom environment and designed to keep things positive.

In the Paris workshop, the leader asked us to talk about what we felt while reading the piece, and I found the resulting comments were often on the harsh side. Not unduly so, there were no attacks, nothing aggressive, but no one was pulling any punches either. I did like that there was no one-by-one-going-around-the-room-style commenting, though. It was more of a conversation, which gave me a chance to listen to others before I offered my comments. And I didn’t have to comment at all if I didn’t want to.

The pieces were pretty evenly split between poetry and prose. Workshopping poetry was a new experience for me. I don’t know anything about poetry and was worried I wouldn’t understand or wouldn’t have anything to say. But it was amazing the way that the imagery in these poems kept unfolding as we discussed them. I was pleased to find that I did have opinions on them, even if I didn’t necessarily speak them.

It wasn’t a life-changing event, and I can’t say that I really learned anything, but I’m pleased I went. It was something I wanted to do while I was in Paris, and I didn’t let myself chicken out. And it really wasn’t so scary in the end.

 

 

Paris Street Art walking tour

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A particularly stunning piece that combines paint with strategic carving into the wall’s already crumbling surface.

I came across the Underground Paris street art walking tour when I was digging through websites about the Paris literary scene. When I first conceived my trip to Europe, it was largely as a kind of self-imposed writing retreat.

The idea of the tour intrigued me, as I know absolutely nothing about street art whatsoever. So this past Saturday morning I met up with the tour guides at a cafe in the Belleville neighbourhood in the northeast of Paris for three hours of education on the subject.

The tour began gently, introducing us to the various different kinds of street art, Continue reading

Walking Tours of Paris

In trying (and largely failing, sadly) to keep my trip on some kind of budget, I spent some time researching free things to do in Paris. I turned up a company called Discover Walks that runs a handful of free tours around Paris.

Well, free is something of an overstatement. Rather than a set fee, they operate on tips. 5€ from every guest goes to the company for administrative costs, and the rest goes directly to the guide. The description of each tour offers an average tip amount for that tour (usually between 10-15€) to use as a guideline.

All the guides are Parisian, so they’re showing you around their own city, and all the tours are in English. I found the quality of the tour varied greatly depending on who I got as a guide, as there isn’t a set script, or even, I think, a set route. The idea is that each guide will show you their favourite places in the neighbourhood.

I took four of their five tours, split over two days. I met up with Victor on the steps of the Opera Garnier for a tour of Paris Landmarks (the right bank tour). And as far as guides go, he absolutely rocked my socks. He had spent two years studying at the school of art history attached to the Louvre museum, and then several months working in Malta to improve his English.

His explanations of the landmarks we visited were thoughtful and informative and funny. He gave us great details about the art and architecture we encountered and brought historical figures to life, giving them all personality and attitude. I had one of those rare and joyous moments of being able to connect dusty history learned in high school (in this particular case the Paris commune in the 1870s) to the explanations he was giving and the monuments I was staring at. I love when that happens.

Victor says he wants to run his own tour of Paris one day, and I would almost fly all the way back to the city just to experience that.

The second tour was of Notre Dame cathedral and its immediate surroundings, and Victor was my guide again. The tours were conveniently timed so that I just had time to cross the city and grab a quick lunch before the next one started. There was an American family with us on this tour – two sisters with five children between them – as well as assorted adults, and Victor kept even the younger kids interested in the tour.

We spent a lot of time looking at the sculpting around the doors of Notre Dame and it was fascinating. Victor told the stories of the building and the art with such character that we were all riveted. And it’s funny, when you get information like that, detailed and entertaining, you can’t not see it when you look at the building again next time. And you feel a little sense of ownership, a connection with the building. That may be the most valuable thing I take away from the whole experience. The Opera Garnier and Notre Dame are my friends, now.

The third tour of the day – The Left Bank – was immediately after the second one. I had to run for it a little, but mostly it timed out okay. This was my first experience with a different guide, and she was… a little underwhelming, actually. She did have historical information to share, but mostly it felt like a hurried tour of the guide’s opinions. Not as thoughtful, not as informative, not as funny. It was a little like getting just the headlines instead of the meat of the article.

The Left Bank was the tour I was most looking forward to, but I felt like the only piece of information I really took away from it was about the public drinking fountains.

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The drinking fountain in front of Shakespeare and Company.

The decorative statues surrounding the stream of water were put there to keep horses from using the same fountains as the people – the horses can’t fit their heads in between the statues. And you can actually drink from the fountains. The water is safe and clean. There are hooks on the side that used to have cups attached by a long chain for communal use. That was eventually deemed unsanitary and the cups were removed. These days, most people use their own water bottles.

On Monday, my last day in the city, I decided to do the Marais walking tour. I had met up with my friend in the Marais for tea on Sunday and it seemed like a lovely neighbourhood. I was interested in learning more.

I arrived early and had my fingers crossed to get Victor as a guide again. Or at the very least someone new. I almost walked away when the Left Bank crazy lady turned up again. Only a lack of any alternative plans kept me there. This tour wasn’t as scattered as the Left Bank one, but again it wasn’t as informative as I would have liked. We saw some lovely courtyards, and I really liked the Place des Vosges, but…. meh.

At least the tip-based system allowed me to compensate the guides on a sliding scale.

I was glad I took the tours, and even more glad I did the bulk of them early in my trip. It helped me to get a handle on the city and its history. I was able to put other things I did and saw into context much more easily, and the tours helped me to identify the other activities and sights in the city I was most interested in pursuing.

Discover Walks run five different tours of Paris. You can book ahead or just turn up on the day. (I never booked ahead and had no problems.) Look out for the guide wearing a pink jacket.

Opera House

On Saturday night, I walked in the footsteps of Emperor Napoleon III. Sort of.

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The central staircase, where once upon a time the rich elite came to be seen.

On Thursday, I met Victor, the guide on two walking tours I took, on the steps of the Opera Garnier. He gave wonderful details about the history, the design, the architect, and the sculptures of the building. He told us funny stories about the bees on the roof, the carp in the lake under the opera house, and the ballerinas in the attic. He made me feel like I knew the building, like it was a friend, and I found I really wanted to see the inside as well.

Part of me wanted to pay for the tour inside the building, but a little voice in my head piped up: wouldn’t it be better to go in and actually see a show instead? So when I got back to the apartment that night, I hopped on the internet and looked up what was playing.

The Opera Garnier was designed more to be a place for the rich and famous to show off their new clothes and jewels than to host performances (if you look at the floor plan, the space devoted to the actual theatre part within the building is relatively small given the building’s overall size) and apparently the acoustics aren’t great. These days most operas are performed at the new opera house across town and the Opera Garnier is mostly used for ballets.

I found one I liked the look of, and on Friday morning I stopped in to the box office. I was expecting to just ask the clerks about the various price options – a quick visit in and out. Like any normal box office. Little did I know. I ended up standing in line for an hour, and at that point I almost felt obligated to buy something to make it worth my time. Luckily they had restricted view seats for 12€. What I wanted was the experience of going to this fancy-pants opera house – restricted view was fine.

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No one does over-the-top gilded opulence quite like the French.

On Saturday night, I went to see a ballet called Rain at the Opera Garnier where the French glitterati have gathered since the 19th century. I felt deeply embarrassed that I didn’t have anything nicer than jeans and a sweater to wear, but it turned out I was hardly the only tourist there.

I arrived early to find a party happening on the steps of the opera house. Students and tourists milled around, some taking photos and others just sitting on the stairs chatting, entertained by a variety of buskers. None of them seemed to be there to see the ballet, though, they were just soaking up the atmosphere.

It was quieter inside. Tourists took photos of themselves posing on the stairs or sipped wine while gazing down from the balconies at the grand staircase and the people filing in. I ducked into every gallery, stepped out onto the balcony above the entrance stairs (and listened to a busker below sing Set Fire to the Rain by Adele in a thick French accent), and climbed to every level of the building to take photos back down over the central atrium.

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The view from my box.

My seat, it turned out, was in a box on the first level. I presented my ticket to a man dressed in black tie and he used a little key to let me into the box. There were six seats inside, and mine was the worst. Only a sliver of the stage was visible when I sat down. The clerk at the box office had assured me I could stand if I wanted to, and when I tried that the view actually wasn’t bad. When the show started, though, the two front seats in the box were still empty, so the rest of us all shuffled up a row and I ended up being able to sit and still see everything.

I really enjoyed the ballet. It was modern – the dancers wore loose clothing in neutral colours and their feet were bare. The music was largely percussive, made up of two grand pianos and several large xylophone-type things, as well as shakers and other pieces. The musicians played this steady, modulating rhythm non-stop for an hour and ten minutes, and at a certain point I was convinced their stamina must be as great as the dancers’.

The dance was simple, not fussy at all, and joyful. Like children playing. It seemed to span a day, from morning through until nighttime, judging from the lighting and some very subtle changes in the dancers’ costumes. I won’t pretend to understand all the symbolism, but I really enjoyed sitting there and soaking it in.

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The Chagall ceiling above the auditorium. Also, the famous chandelier – which did not, in fact, fall during the ballet.

The man with the key came back at the end to let us out of the box. I lingered a moment when the others left so I could hang over the edge and take a photo up at the ceiling. The frieze surrounding the chandelier was painted by Chagall, and I love his work.

It was a lovely evening. Very civilized. I’m very pleased I didn’t give up on the line at the box office when I was first tempted to.

Surprises in the Tuileries

I walked through the Tuileries gardens twice this week – the first time as part of a tour with Victor, and the second time walking through on my way to somewhere else. The gardens surprised me both times.

When I was reminiscing with my dad about our visit to Paris when I was a child, he asked me if I remembered the merry-go-round near the Louvre. I had to admit I did not. And I really didn’t, right up until I saw not the merry-go-round itself, but a specific ostrich-shaped ‘horse’ on it. And then a dozen memories came flooding back. They were all snippets and impressions, too vague to explain, but I remember sitting on that ostrich. I remember riding that merry-go-round with my brother. It was the strangest feeling.

That ostrich was a part of the reason my friend Dario and I cut through the Tuileries that second time, just so I could see it again. I didn’t get a proper chance to stop and goggle at it while I was trying to keep up with the walking tour.

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Goat!

After paying my respects to the ostrich on that second visit, Dario and I wandered through the gardens, on our way to find something for lunch. And as we passed by one of the open spaces, we noticed a goat picketed in a grassy ditch. Dario’s first comment was, ‘Now I’m just waiting for the tyrannosaurus rex.’ Mine was, ‘well, it’s an efficient lawn mower at least.’

I have absolutely no idea while the goat was actually there. But it was definitely a surprise.

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Art installation of dozens and dozens of wind chimes.

On our way out of the gardens, we passed a collection of dozens and dozens of wind chimes, all flickering and tinkling madly in the stiff breeze. It was loud, but magical too, and almost hypnotizing to look at.

Just another random art installation in the park. And no one has defaced it or broken it.

I love Paris.

on the roof of Galeries Lafayette

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Galeries Lafayette

I’m not sure why, but I was expecting the Galeries Lafayette to be a shopping mall, with a collection of small stores inside. It turns out to be more of a large department store. Multiple levels of displays and kiosks look down over this central atrium, and the whole place smells faintly of perfume.

Galeries Lafayette is across the street from the Opera Garnier – the Paris opera house of Phantom of the Opera fame – in a neighbourhood that has been the playground of the rich since the time of Napoleon III in the 19th century.

Victor, the guide on one of the tours I took on Thursday, told us the Galeries Lafayette can be a fun place to browse, and that the prices aren’t actually that bad. But best of all, there is access to the roof, which offers a spectacular view over Paris.

I headed in on Friday, after starting the morning at the Opera’s box office. (I scored tickets to a ballet on Saturday night for 12€, so the hour-long wait in line while little old ladies made the clerks talk through the available seats for every. single. performance. in the next three weeks turned out to be worth it.)

Unlike, say, the Arc de Triomphe, which also has a wonderful view over Paris, the Galeries Lafayette has both escalators and elevators, and there is no cost to go up. I took the escalators, so I could get off at every level and take pictures down into the atrium and up to the stained-glass dome overhead.

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The dome above the atrium.

Up on the roof, they have laid out fake grass and plastic sofas to make the atmosphere more inviting. And it looked as though there was also a cafe there for when the weather was nicer, although it was closed the day I visited.

The view of the Opera Garnier is impressive, and provides a chance to see the architectural work from above. Victor had explained that bee hives were installed on the roof of the opera house (the honey is sometimes for sale in the opera’s gift shop, although they were sold out when I checked), and he suggested we try to spot the hives from Lafayette. I am sad to report that I both tried and failed.

(The Opera Garnier is not the only building in Paris with bee hives on the roof. Urban beekeeping has been on the rise in Paris over the last decade – in 2010, it was estimated there were more than 400 hives in the city, including on the roofs of the Grand Palais, La Defense, and certain hotels and restaurants.)

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View over Paris from the roof of Lafayette shopping centre.

The Eiffel Tower stands over the skyline to the right of the Opera House, and if you head all the way to your left (as you face the opera) and then turn around, you’ll be able to see Sacre Coeur cathedral between two bits of the Lafayette building. I was surprised to find it looked both larger and closer than I was expecting, and due to the strange way it was framed by the building, it seemed like it was floating in the sky above Paris.

The roof was a lovely place to spend some time. I was a little afraid that snooty French salesmen might frown on the ragged tourist as she trooped through the store to get to the view on the roof, but the Galeries Lafayette have gone out of their way to make it feel welcoming.