Thursday, May 22, 2008

A naif in Paris, part 2

A friend had pointed out to me that he stayed at a hotel at the Ile St. Louis, one of a pair of small islands in the Seine just to the southeast of my hotel. I decided to make a walk of it on the third morning of my visit, heading down rue St. Germain to where it ends at one of the bridges leading to St. Louis. St. Germain is the primary shopping district on the Left Bank, the yin to the Champs Elysees' yang. Branching off from St. Germain, you will find high end shops (though supposedly at lower prices than their Right Bank counterparts) such as Louis Vuitton and other haut fashion cathedrals of the sort to freeze a man's loins should he store his wallet nearby.

The river crossing to the Ile St. Louis afforded a view up the river to Notre Dame, which resides on the larger of the two islands. Those familiar with Paris will be scoffing at me here, but all this was new to me. I was actually astonished to see Notre Dame there, an utterly unexpected view. The Ile St. Louis seemed ancient to me, tightly packed with elegant old buildings serving as apartments and residences, with shops and restaurants on the street level. As with everywhere else in Paris, I would stop from time to time near a doorway to check with my iPhone to see if there was a free WiFi connection available, the seduction of technology too great for me to avoid even surrounded by the wonders of central Paris. I felt the need to fire off an email of the form, "Can you believe I'm seeing this?" It's akin to the cell phone call, "Guess where I am, now?"

The rue St. Louis en l'ile bisects the island parallel to the flow of the river around it. I think this was my favorite street of all I saw in Paris. Tall, old stone buildings to either side of the narrow road, it felt dark, slightly damp, as if I was tunneling deep into history leaving the sunshine of today far in the future. I walked the length of the island and back along this street, stopping for a brief while when I heard organ music playing. Inside a cathedral an organist was practicing and I stopped in the doorway to listen for awhile. I didn't go in, though the door was unlocked and open, but I read a flier outside the church advertising a concert the coming Saturday evening of a performance of four Magnificats, including Bach's. I made a mental note of this and decided to go to it. I'd see the inside of the cathedral then.

At the tip of the island was a bridge leading to Notre Dame on the other island. I crossed it, sat in the courtyard on the sunny side of Notre Dame and admired the architecture. The courtyard, more of a park actually, had public WiFi I'm both happy and ashamed to announce. Here I am at this architectural marvel and I'm still thinking about WiFi. I sat down to rest my aching back and fired off a note to Amy, telling her where I was and that I was hot on the lookout for Esmerelda. I didn't mention that with my back feeling the way it was, I was playing the role of the hunchback.

I walked along the street side of the cathedral to where the hordes of tourists were gathering at the main entrance. This was unpleasant, like a huge gathering of people getting into a baseball game. It had to be endured, though, if I wanted to spend time admiring the building itself, seeing it all finally for the first time.

At one point, a woman walked up to me holding a small hand written note and she asked me if I spoke English. I said yes, to which she thrust the note in front of me for reading. It said she was from Bosnia, had hungry children, needed money, etc., etc. That typical pang of guilt hit me as I read the note, but I noticed just past her shoulder an older woman shaking her head at me, wagging her finger in an expression of "Don't encourage the begging." I apologized to the woman with the note and moved on.

The other woman approached me and said, in French, that I should beware of the pickpockets. Soon, I saw what she meant as it seemed that every other person in the square was carrying a similar note, thrusting it in front of tourists. Swimming upstream against this current, I made my way to the bridge leading away from Notre Dame, answering everyone who asked me if I spoke English with, "I don't speak English" but in Russian. I considered using a cruder phrase that I've taught Amy (which translates literally to, "I'm wacking pears with my prick"), but decided maybe one of them actually speaks Russian. In any case, the Russian with the American accent made his way safely out of the danger zone. No one tried to kiss me.

If I have any regrets on my visit, and I don't really regret this to be honest, it was that I didn't indulge in fine restaurants. This was partly because, well, I'm just too damn shy to eat alone, and also because I could eat - happily and enjoyably - for so much less by just buying bread, fruit, and other items in the local markets and making a meal of that. The hotel served a very substantial breakfast that came with the cost of the room, so I made sure to have my "dinner" there, but at breakfast time. The rest of the day I improvised. I was never hungry, and I ended up not spending much money.

I had one meal at a good restaurant one evening, and this cemented my satisfaction in my alternate plan. An order of fois gras and raviolis baked in cream and thick, grilled cheese made me realize I could actually die (happily of course, but thoroughly dead) from the heaviness of the food. I couldn't finish the fois gras, but the waiter wouldn't take the remains. It became a battle of sorts, probably not unlike the stalemates of World War I trench warfare, my not eating the remainder and the waiter bending unspoken pressure on me not to be a German pig and leave good food behind.

I lost the battle and sheepishly choked it down. It was really good, of course, but eating that much made me feel as if the poor duck was getting a measure of sweet vengeance for its treatment in life.

My favorite meal was an impromptu picnic of baguette, apples, orange juice and macaroons, the latter procured at Laduree, a bakery recommended by another Seattle friend. I ate this while sitting on a bench in the Jardin Tuileries, basking in the warm evening glow, watching the children play and the lovers stroll about the gardens. What can I say but that I'm a romantic at heart - everyone in Paris is a romantic at heart - and I thought about a certain beautiful girl and what it would have been like to have her there with me. This notion crossed my mind many times while in Paris. Walking across the Seine after the Magnificat concert on the Ile St. Louis around 11pm, the moon riding high in the sky, Notre Dame lit up by lights, the couples leaning on each other as they walked holding hands - I made a mental note to try taking a date here sometime in the future.

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