Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A naif in Paris

It's magic. You step into this long aluminum tube, close your eyes for about ten hours, and when you open them you're on another continent. Everything still looks like planet Earth, but the scenery is different, and the people speak a different language, but you don't feel like you've been physically displaced. Since airports all look alike, the effect is especially pronounced.

So my first encounter with the reality of being on a different continent, in a different country, on the other side of the globe was navigating my way through the French metro system. Getting to the metro was enough of a challenge - finding my way via airport shuttle to immigration and then to the RER station was a wide-eyed, opened ear exercise in paying attention to what was said and sucking the life out of anything written in English. I felt a little less alone when I stood in line at the ticket machine with other foreigners, attempting to decode the French instructions for purchasing a ticket.

Long story short: I found my way to the hotel despite guessing wrong on a metro transfer. My first attempt at real French was to ask a hurrying commuter which way was it to the St. Michel platform. She was magnifique, not only explaining slowly in semi-understood French, but actually leading me there even though she was headed in another direction. So much for French aloofness.

It was a sweaty, unnecessarily long journey to the hotel what with the botched transfer, the milk run out of the airport instead of the express train to the city center, and the walk from the Musee d'Orsay to my hotel. But I arrived to a friendly hotel staff, took to my room, had a shower, and ventured out in the early afternoon.

The Hotel Pont Royal is just off the rue du Bac, and looking across the street I noticed Amy's favorite shop, though in French, non-pornographic form.

The Pont Royal - the bridge rather than the hotel - is just down the rue du Bac and leads over the Seine to the Louvre. I wanted to see the grounds first and foremost, so I had my first look at the river and the elegantly arched bridges. It was warm and sunny, the sky and reflected light off the buildings so bright as I squinted my way to the grounds between the Louvre and the Jardin Tuileries.

It's probably not worth mentioning my impressions. What could be said about the architecture, the majesty, the mood, that hasn't been said thousands of times by others? What I felt about seeing such things for myself was more of a personal nature. The fact that I was in Paris despite my inhibitions, on my own, without pressures of time or work or children was enough to make everything I looked at very beautiful, unique, and personal.

I surely looked the part of an obvious tourist, though I was walking about with no bag on my shoulder, wearing a shirt and jeans. I didn't feel out of place, but, then, the Louvre and Tuileries are mostly the gathering places of tourists. So I shouldn't have been surprised when, alone in a side area of the Louvre grounds, a pretty young woman bent down to pick something up off the ground and presented it to me. She spoke only French to me:

She: Monsieur, I think this is gold. Someone must have lost it.
Me: Hmmm.
She: Do you think I should keep it?
Me: Oui. Bien sur.
She: No, I think I will give it to you.
Me: Non, non. Mais, merci.
She: Yes, take it as a welcome to Paris.

She handed it to me, then embraced me, kissing my left cheek, then my right. As she walked off, I was thinking I could really enjoy this visit. But then she turned around and asked me for money.

She: I am hungry and need money. Could you give me something for food?
Me: Sigh (pulling a 5 Euro note from my pocket)
She: I need 10 Euros, please. A sandwich costs 10 Euros.
Me: Non, desole. C'est tout.
She: No, you have 10. Please give me 10.
Me: Non. Je suis desole.

After she walked off, the paranoia set in and I began to think the whole thing was a ruse to distract me while she attempted to pick my pocket. I think with my wallet and passport in my front jeans pockets, it was too difficult and she found nothing during her embrace to take from me. I am such the innocent. Later, various people would warn me about the varied techniques of the pickpockets who prey on unwary tourists. I'm sure it was only my sinister, Clint Eastwood-like presentation that protected me and my valuables.

I walked on and admired the Louvre, not worrying myself as I probably would have at home. I loved this framed view, so I took a quick snapshot.

What I enjoyed most about my stay in Paris was to walk, and walk, and walk. Each day I would head out in a different direction and walk as far as my tired feet would take me. While I think I'm in pretty decent shape, riding my bike at home each day, walking woke up new muscles, not familiarly used, and my lower back ached after a few miles. While my legs and feet hurt a bit, it wasn't the grief my lower back gave me. By the end of my visit, though, I felt that I could walk forever, at least with a better pair of walking shoes than those I brought.

I loved the narrow Paris streets. What would seem like tiny unused alleyways in the States were major thoroughfares, and cars would be parked nose-to-bumper on the sides. Most cars were Citroens and tiny "smart cars," a few of which you see in Seattle - half-sized tiny cars used for city driving and parking. About 35% of the traffic was motocycles and motorized scooters, zipping in and out of traffic lanes between the cars. The scooters are loud and are a primary component of the constant Paris background noise.

For my first full day in Paris, I decided to walk to the Champ de Mars and see the Eiffel Tower. I also decided to try to buy a French SIM card for my iPhone, the iPhone I purchased to act as a mini-laptop for my trip. I had unlocked the thing before I left, inserting a T-Mobile SIM that I thought would work in France, albeit with steep per-minute international roaming fees. But when I landed at the airport, I found that the card gave me no service for reasons still not understood.

Looking at a map, I decided to walk along rue Grenelle which would lead to the Champ de Mars. Along the way, I stopped at a tobacco shop - these are everywhere in Paris -to try to purchase a SIM card. This was another exercise for my language skills - the shopkeeper spoke only French to me though she was very sympathetic of my attempts. It was actually very encouraging to me, and I got a rush from it similar to the kind of rush I get from coding software, the thrill of figuring something out and decoding an unfamiliar language. I was able to understand from her, and a patron sitting at the bar (tobacco shops often provide food/coffee services - think upscale 7-11), that I could get only a service recharge at tobacco shops and needed to go to an Orange or SFR shop to get a SIM card, Orange and SFR being French mobile providers. The patron showed me on my map where to find one on rue St. Domanique.

It was a lucky encounter because I found I really loved the walk along St. Domanique, and would return that way many times during my stay. The street passed through government ministry buildings, guarded by police/military with automatic rifles, then the Esplanade des Invalides - a panhandle shaped park leading up to the buildings of the Invalides, and then a very pleasant shopping district that seemed to be devoid of tourists during the times I walked there. I usually took my first walk of the day early, around 8 or 9 am, and the shops would be opening or being prepared for open, with people hosing down the sidewalks in front of their shops, sweeping, or dusting off their windows and entrances.

The streets are the city's garbage cans. Everyone throws their cigarette butts into the gutters, or sweeps off the refuge of the sidewalk onto the streets, and magically everything is gone the next day. I suppose some combination of street cleaners and rain water flushes everything away to the sewage treatment centers, but the streets are clean and tidy every morning.

The halfway mark of my first day's walk was the Champ de Mars and the Eiffel Tower. I sat on a couple of benches, looking at the tower from different vantage points, enjoying the rest from walking and the absolutely magnificent day of blue skies and soft, warm temperatures. It was this first day of walking that I realized I was almost religiously happy, happy to a previously unknown degree, utterly content with just being alive and being in Paris. I hope I never forget how happy I was that first full day and the other days I stayed in Paris. I guess it's a bit sad to say that that sort of happiness in living for the moment was foreign to me and a surprise. It's difficult to describe. I was happy.

I played tourist, taking pictures of the obvious.

I sat on a bench watching these two men pulling up old flowers, preparing the ground for new plantings. A woman came by and snipped flowers for an impromptu bouquet. It was very quiet, being early in the morning for the tourists and for Parisians who start their day and end their day later than I'm used to.

I thought about how Jacob would love looking at the Eiffel Tower, the ultimate Erector Set project, with its interconnecting rails and braces, stairways and platforms, and elevators running diagonally up from the ground and finally straight up to the platform near the top. If he were there, I would have told him to run up and down the stairs to the first platform as exercise. He would have said, "Daa-aad."

Along with the Champ de Mars and Jardin Tuileries, my favorite place to just sit, think, and look was the Jardin du Luxembourg, the site of the French Senate with spacious gardens, fountains, and statues. I visited here several times when I wanted an excuse to just sit and not do anything at all. I made my first visit on this same first day, and by the time I returned back to my hotel my body was aching from all the walking. But the gardens were wonderful and sitting in the shade was a great relief from the sun that was turning my face and head beet red. I neglected to bring a hat, thinking somehow that through strict fashion sense I would be protected from any sunshine and not wanting to look like some hayseed tourist even though that's what I most assuredly must have looked like anyway.

Another target of one of my long walks was along the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe. I walked here several times, my favorite route being across the Pont Alexandre III bridge with its gold leaf decorations, past the Grand Palais and the statue of Charles de Gaulle (with flowers left by admirers at his feet). The Champs Elysees leads up a steady hill to the Arc, with a huge traffic circle at the center of twelve connecting streets. Here I would sit and watch the traffic zip around the Arc, amazed at the simple mathematical impossibility that scores of deaths weren't occuring each hour. Really, I was fascinated by what I was seeing there - the steady inflow of traffic from the feeding streets, the maneuvering of cars, scooters, motorcycles, and bicycles ridden by elderly women carrying long baguettes under their arms as they sped around the circle, paying attention to no particular lane markers, sliding in and out radially from the center of the circle as they tried to make their exit. Honking was indiscriminate, less to warn or to scold than to just announce that, "I'm here, damnit, and I'm French."

I wouldn't drive through that roundabout if I were paid good money to do so. Later in my visit, though, I was driven through it as a passenger, but I remember little of it due to my eyes being tightly closed.

I loved the Champs Elysees and the side streets, especially Avenue Montaigne which hosts an expensive cloister of upscale Parisian clothing stores, the wet dreams of high maintenance women and the nightmares of their men. The Right Bank was definitely of a different character than the Left Bank, and I enjoyed exploring both.

More to come...

2 comments:

Bill Boyd said...

I once rode around one of those Paris circles on the back of a motorcycle. It was night time and I kept my eyes open. I'm glad you achieved a true state of happiness there! Looking forward to the next installment...

Anonymous said...

once, when seventeen, i along with three friends ran across the l'arc du triomphe roundabout, not realizing there was an underground tunnel for pedestrians. we were all new yorkers, and i think we thought we could navigate any sort of traffic, but that gave us a run for our money.