Spring break in the final year of university is defining. As the inevitable grind of work-life appears imminent, the knee-jerk reaction is to live in-the-moment (“YOLO”). A few good ideas have emerged. The most popular course is a trip organized by S-trip, a monopolist that benefits from a network effect, and is therefore able to charge exorbitant prices for a rather flimsy offering. They market themselves through ridiculous videos of unwound youth, organized in mosh-pit formation.
As I argued in my “Pick Your Poison” article, the video exhibits behavior not only is expected for this given segment, but should be encouraged for its effectiveness. As for those that attended Punta this reading week, I am sure the seven-day binge led to many enlightening experiences.
As the Punta group strategized on how to ingest free alcoholic beverages at the maximal rate, another group scratched heads on how to sneak the most alcohol onto a stupidly cheap cruise ship. As one Queen’s professor suggested, shampoo bottles may come into use.
My destinies led me back to Europe, where I had spent the entirety of my exchange. It began with a ski trip in Chamonix, then a hop to Paris and ended in London.
Chamonix is as English as it gets in France. There is none of that typical French sneering but it almost loses the French charm. Menus are too often in English and the default language is also English. Some French notorieties remain. Taxis are impossible to hail, and when they do come, they charge exorbitant prices. Luggage storage is impossible to find. In all, it is not consumer facing. Given the natural jewels of the mountain, the entire operation is poorly run and consumers are undeserved.
On the three days I was there, the temperature was never foul yet the snow stayed soft. No ski masks or scarves necessary. On one happy day, the snow fell all night and stopped by sunrise. It was like skiing on a pile of sugar or bouncing around on a memory-foam mattress. Turns and stops came quickly and effortlessly and falls, if any, were cushioned. The good conditions were particularly noticed off-piste. A light wind had the effect of creating first-track conditions essentially anywhere off-piste. In one adventurous run, I had lost my skis in the middle of some off-piste glades. Without the surface area of skis, the snow displaced like quicksand. Unsettling. I used a half buried tree to pole-vault myself back into position. I descended laboriously only to find the lifts still an ascent away. Upon completion, my prize beer was denied from me by inept service.
We stayed in a cozy chalet with beds in an attic reachable by bookshelf stairs. It was a tiny slice of mountain life – “the Swiss experience”, one more say. But it is hidden and hard to get to and excruciatingly far from the village. Chamonix seems to be one of the only places in Europe that is not pedestrian friendly.
Returning to Paris was a trip down memory lane. Most memorable was getting back onto the Vélib bicycles and finishing off what I had neglected last year. A canal tour on the St. Martin was sometimes cool but often boring, especially with incomprehensible English guides. But not far from Parc de la Villete, where the canal ends, is perhaps the most heart-wrenching site in Paris. Pere Lachaise cemetery, still in operation, feels like a Kingdom of the Dead, with graves stacked on top of each other. It came out of a scene from Lord of the Rings.
The food, of course, was extraordinary. At le Grand Epicerie de Paris, shelves of Foie Gras and full slabs of swordfish are common place, egg cartons look like macron-looking and there were enough types of bottled water to look like a Vodka bar.
Across the Channel, it feels like we’ve zoomed fifty years into the future. They are both beautiful but for different reasons. In London, the archaic architecture is juxtaposed with modern monoliths. In Paris, old charm prevails.
For London, the new hot-spot is the East, where new restaurants are popping up and old markets are crawling with yuppies. Near Shoreditch, shops and restaurants span cargo containers (like those in the market Zurich). Have an affordable afternoon tea at Albion nearby. And Brick Lane Market is arguably the most happening spot in London, where the graffiti is an attraction.
The museums are an obvious must. They are all “free” but ask for donations. The obvious ones are: The British Museum (history), Tate (modern art), National Gallery (non-modern art), Portrait (portrait gallery), Victoria and Albert (like the British Museum but more European/British), the British Library, and Natural History and the Science Museum if you’re into that. They are all worth going to.
Between these two cities, the history of the modern world was written. They are by far the most interesting and unfinishable cities. Paris has all 20 of its arrondissements and London, the many boroughs connected by the underground. Both cities grow on you as soon as you move outside of the touristy core. See the Paris Restaurant Guide and the European Restaurant Guide for an updated list of restaurants.