I had a great time in London, despite not really doing much touristy stuff. Stayed for a couple days in a great youth hostel in Bayswater (a mini shopping/eating center north of Hyde park), then with a retired couple in Soho (basically the red-light district of London), then for the rest of the trip in a less great youth hostel near King's Cross (outside the nice part of the city to the North). The days were short, and I tried to spend them walking along the streets looking at things, watching people go by, and occasionally meeting new people and talking for a long time about random things. The most striking thing about London for me was the array of people that I met here; just sitting in a cafe I would hear Spanish, French, Italian, and many languages I couldn't identify. I hung out with a broke guy from Boston who had spent a year doing organic farming in Italy, met Vietnamese girls from Norway, chatted with Taiwanese tourists in Mandarin, broke up a political debate between a German with US accent and a Spanish teacher from Spain, played chess and drank a Foster's with an Australian who was slowly touring the world, and of course heard a whole variety of British accents. I actually think that the trip improved my English by forcing me to think very carefully about the idiomaticity of everything I said. In general, it seems like things are written and spoken in a more natural way there: "way out" instead of "exit", "cash machine" instead of "ATM", etc...
Walking around the city I was sure I was going to be killed by a car; if you haven't been to London you wouldn't believe how hard it is to force yourself to look RIGHT first when crossing the street! They even have the direction to look written on the curb to help out tourists, but I was unable to break my old habits. If a car didn't get me, I sure a pedestrian would have sooner or later; when approaching someone we would both veer to the same side and collide, every single time!
I was happy to get to spend a lot of time with my Angela and Iain in London; they were extremely nice hosts, though I know Angela was at least partly using me for my willingness to play Settlers - she has just about made Iain completely sick of the game by now :) The high point of my time with them was when we took a 10km hike through the countryside and came across rhinoceroses, giraffes, and elephants (no kidding!!) I got to visit Bilge in Oxford and have dinner at her College (just like the dining scenes in Harry Potter, though not as formal), visited Stephen Fuller's structural biology lab there and got a tour of Daryl's ultra-fast laser lab, though I screwed up dates and sadly missed Profs. Kapanidis and Berry.
Despite what everyone says, eating is great in England. Just like in the US, we almost always went out for some kind of foreign food, but my authentic British pub dinner of fish&chips was quite tasty as well. Actually, there were only two unpleasant things about London: everything costs about twice as much as it does in the US, so I was feeling constant pain about the money I spent; and the doorknobs are universally terrible. Seriously - I locked myself in a toilet stall in the British Museum, pulled a doorknob off of the door and onto my foot in the (otherwise very nice) Soho apartment, and often had to search for some tiny bit of metal sticking out of the middle of the door that I could pull on to get it open.
That's about all I can think of. I liked it there a lot! Not sure if I'd want to live there some day, but I'll definitely visit again.
Oh yeah, the touristy stuff is great. Rosetta stone, Big Ben, London Tower, etc - all very pretty. Even saw the Changing of the Guard, which was quite silly. Didn't spend too much time on them though. In case you are interested, my favorite places to hang out and watch people are were duck ponds in St. James Park and the big coffee house on the corner of Wardour and Shaftesbury between Soho and Chinatown.
Clearly differentiating this part of my trip from the first part was my limited skill in French — I knew that my communication with others was going to be a fraction of what it was in London. I tried hard when I had a good excuse: my first French success was recharging a French SIM card for my cell phone, though my pride was tempered a bit when I realized I had no idea how to work the voicemail or check my balance. Not much later, I attempted to order "une baguette aux pavot" and watched in horror as my tongue produced "un baguette de pavot", noticeably upsetting the girl at the counter. It took several trips to that particular bakery before I learned to reliably order what I wanted.
Lacking language skills, I mostly resigned to being a quiet tourist. I would get onto the streets around 11am, take the metro to some interesting place, and walk for hours, trying to get a sense for the city. As soon as I started doing this, I realized that my feet were in serious pain from all the walking I had done in London, so I would get tired very quickly and look for a place to sit down. Luckily (and of course I expected this!) Paris has little cafes on every corner; when it started to get dark I would often check into one and sip a hot chocolate, while trying to figure out what the place is about. A typical Paris cafe is very different from, say, a Starbucks in the US, a place with a healthy feel where people run in to grab a coffee and donut, maybe read a paper, then run off. It's much more like a pub or bar...people will come with their friends and sit for hours talking, smoking, and drinking anything from espresso to beer or wine. The cafes are often so smoky that it's hard for me to stay inside. And the drinks, which you pay 4 to 6€ for, come in surprisingly small quantities, somewhere around 50mL. I bought quite a few just out of curiosity, to try to figure out how the French can put up with such ridiculously small drinks, and I can't say I understand it.
Staying at Z's apartment was another thing that made the France experience totally different from the England one. I really appreciated have the place to stay; she has an apartment that looks small but is really quite spacious for being near central Paris. We ate breakfast and cooked dinner at the apartment together every day, and though it was always delicious, I didn't get as many chances to meet other interesting people as I did in England. I think that it might have been wise to forgo a bit of comfort and force myself to spend some of my time in Paris at a youth hostel; the opportunity to meet other travelers could have made the trip much more interesting. But there will always be more opportunities to try that in the future! One very nice exception was having dinner with Z's friends G and W, a very interesting couple who served us "snacks" consisting of a full dinner plus lots of wine, sherry, and cheese.
But what did I actually do in Paris? Of course, I did a few touristy things. First, the Eiffel tower. Even though I know there are many buildings (even in Paris) much taller than the tower, it is still a very impressive sight, because of the way its skeletal design shows off its massive quantities of steel; especially when you stand in the huge open space below and look up. The top was closed that day, but I took the stairs to the second level and spent a couple of hours on the observation deck, surrounded by other tourists, gazing at the city below. The center of the city is filled by similar-looking, somewhat old buildings, no more that five or six stories tall, so from the observation deck (30 stories up?) you get a wonderful bird's-eye-view of everything. The second tourist trap that I visited was the Louvre; though I generally find museums pretty dull, there were a few gems. Vermeer's The Lacemaker and The Astronomer took me half an hour to find, because they are such tiny pieces, but they were definitely the most beautiful paintings in the building; you can get some idea from the links above, but imagine them being much sharper and with rich, saturated colors. I was also pleased to see the ancient Code of Hammurabi, though I had trouble reading the cuneiform to check whether the laws were any good. The Mona Lisa was actually a very pretty painting, but the funniest (and saddest) thing about it was seeing dozens of people standing around it, continually taking flash photos of each other. The only other remotely touristy thing I did was to sit under the Sacre Cour at the top of Montmarte, reading a book while watching all of Paris below me.
Having paid better attention to the calendar this time, I went out on the right day to visit the lab of Francoise Livolant at Uni Paris-Sud (Orsay), meeting Prof. Livolant, Stephanie Mangenot, Eric Raspaud, Marta ???, and one younger woman whose name I have unfortunately forgotten. They were extremely friendly hosts, treating me to lunch and coffee then showing me around their labs and talking about their latest research results on bacteriophage T5, which will prove very helpful to my own work. I can see why Rob likes visiting: the steep hill up to their part of campus should make for a serious biking challenge every morning.
I also took an overnight trip on the TGV to Lyon (amusing fact: voyages-sncf.com doesn't list Etats-Unis as a country (update after 1.5 years: we are finally on the list!), so I had to buy the tickets when I was in England) to visit the Ladous family. Corinne's Mother, Father, and particularly her brother were all very amusing and hospitable people, showing me all around Lyon and keeping me well entertained with stories about Lyon, Corinne's childhood, life in Guilin, and the Stevie Wonder website. It was wonderful to finally meet a family I had heard so much about!
I'll conclude with an image from my last day in Paris - 7 AM, in a small bakery on Rue Didot, nothing is out on the shelves, but Z asks the woman at the counter something and she calls into the back room...I see a worker in back open up a huge oven full of breads and pull out a tray of pain au chocolat just for us. After handing over 1.80€ for two of them we step back out onto the street, under the cool, gray sky, and bite into them. The buttery bread is so hot and soft that it feels like a hollow shell, and the sticky chocolate chips almost burn my mouth, as we walk to the Metro station. A delicious end to a satisfying trip.