Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Three Days In France

On January 25th, I flew to Paris. I've always dreamed of seeing Paris, staying in a quaint hotel in the heart of the city spending days and days roaming through the Louvre, wandering amongst the dead buried at Cimetiere du Pere-Lachaise, seeing the Eiffel Tower and commiserating with the ghosts of war at the Arc de Triumph. I imagined flying the Concord to London out of New York, resting with Diana and Charles and then flying to Paris. I would then take a limousine to the quaint hotel to find a big, huge bed with chocolates and champagne awaiting me upon my arrival.
Rewind I was teasing my sister-in-law Laurie that it might be nice if I could accompany her to Paris and carry her baggage. Her response, "Hey, would you seriously like to go?" I failed to check the balance in my checking account and said not yes, but hell yes. Her wonderful husband had me signed, booked and obligated me within the hour. I told Lon, "I'm going to France with your sister." He replied, "Oh?" and that was the end of that. He was very happy for me, unlike my trip to Cusco, Peru for 30 days. I am happy. I did a little planning (not much), packed my bags early this time and waited....and waited until the 25th....I headed for the airport, parked my car at the budget lot and flew to Cincinnati where I met Laurie and we sat together in some great coach seats that had a lot of extra leg room to compensate us for agreeing to be responsible for the safety of the entire passenger list should there be a need to evacuate the plane using the exit door we were sitting next to. I have Laurie's husband Dan and his travel savvy knowledge of airline seating to thank for this extra leg room and responsibility over the Atlantic Ocean. Off we went. We snoozed, we talked, we ate, we snacked, I gave up on my IPOD French lessons that I had gotten off to such a great start with and before you knew it, we arrived in the pristine and modern Charles de Gaulle Airport Paris and waited patiently for our shuttle to the hotel. Drugs will put you to sleep and calm restless legs even if it means sacrificing the safety of the passengers entrusted to my care. I still have my doubts that two 200 pound women (one wearing slippers) could possibly pull out the door latch on a jet seating eight passengers across, lift the door, pull a cord on the right that was hidden behind a panel to release the door's hinges and thrust the door into the night. But then, that's just me. As you can see, I did familiarize myself with my duties by reading the instructions located in the seat pocket in front of me.
Le jour 1 (Day 1) Our hotel was great, but VERY FAR AWAY from Paris. It was a very American Radisson near the airport. It was very clean, had great beds and a helpful staff. It was 60+ Euros away from Paris to be exact. Not that I'm complaining, but our travel time into Paris was long and expensive. Time was running out on our first day in Paris but with the help of a young woman in the helicopter business named Romy (who was in Paris for the day just to see the Eiffel Tower) we received our instructions on where to go for some good shopping fun, where to make the transfer at Gare du Nord to reach the Haussmann St. Lazare Station. Romy was a beautiful, tri-lingual, friendly young Texan we met at our hotel who took us under her wing and directed us to our shopping destination perfectly. She did explain it six times though.
Le Metro A ride on the Metro is an adventure in itself. You watch, you wait for your stop. The Paris Metro was packed with people in the early afternoon: young and old, rich and poor, lovers, students, Spanish speakers (¡muy bien!) and us. My impression on the way into Paris proper was that they need to appoint an Interior Graffiti Minister. It was ugly, quasi-artistic and yet horrific commentary. I was in awe of the very American business advertisements and the endless grim graffiti covering the backs of buildings and spent the trip studying both along with the other passengers crowded around me. You grab bits and pieces of other conversations in languages familiar and not. The industrial buildings in the outlying parts of the Metro route are familiar with billboards of a really small world: Saab, at&t, Comfort Inn, Clinique, Estee Lauder, Coach and Hello Kitty. Standing by the window, looking out and thinking where am I? Are we there YET? I look for Laurie to make sure she’s still there. Actually, it was a wonderful adventure, the Metro. The only shop I had in mind to find was my precious Guerlain Perfumier. I’m still in love with Shalimar and always will be (whether your nose knows it or not). I finally spotted one of their boutiques. The smell of a room filled with a dozen or so Guerlain perfume testers isn’t unlike the three foot radius surrounding the TJMaxx perfume floating display counter (sans broken bottles), but to me it was heaven. I sniffed perfumes I have smelled a thousand times and even some that I already own that are collecting dust on my dresser, but testing perfumes in Paris made them brand new again. Really. I’m thinking that they are fresher over there not having to cross the ocean, right?? I mean, doesn’t that make scents? (I’m sorry.) The only thing I really wanted to buy in Paris was perfume and maybe some gloves. The fact that I did not make it to their famed La Maison Guerlain located at 68 des Avenue Champs-Elysée. http://www.guerlain.com/index.asp?page=gbasp/parfumeur/&logo=1
After leaving the famed perfumier, we wondered a little and discovered the street vendors selling shoes, scarves, junk and makeup. I wanted to go to Printemps after seeing their beautiful Domed Building. Printemps is a historic monument of three buildings, joined by a walkway, La Mode (women’s fashion), La Maison (for the home) and Brummel (men’s fashion). The building dates from 1865 and also has a stained glass dome (1923) above the Café Flo. I almost bought a beautiful pair of red gloves that fit perfectly on my size 8.5 hands, but finally reality set in. They were on sale for around 80 Euro x 1.65= $132.00. Oh well. I have since managed to find some great leather gloves on sale for half price at Dillard’s. I’ll pretend I bought them in Paris. Laurie and I had a nice dinner of Quiche (what else?) and Salad and sampled the Crème Brule (of course?) for dessert. We were huddled in a small window space of the very busy Café Haussman located on Boulevard Hausmann near Printemps. After dinner, we returned to the street vendors to see if we could find anything unusual and cheap, but no luck. Our return to the hotel proved to be more difficult. A wrong stop here, a wrong level there and so we asked a stranger for help. She was a beautiful woman who spoke no English and after conferring with another woman on the Metro platform, her advice was to “go with the sister”. Sister appeared to be headed for the airport….she HAD suitcases….so we followed her. She was going to the airport platform.…only just for us…she dropped us off right where we needed to be and said, “Au revoir.” We were touched that she went out of her way to see that we got to the correct platform and then proceeded on to her own stop. We decided that the French do not hate Americans. They were friendly, more than kind and seemed to delight in helping us. What more could a traveler ask for? Our future trips into the city would be by taxi.
La sale de bain ( The Bathroom) WARNNG: Might be TMI Beside the clean linens and attractive furniture, my room was small and perfect for my needs. The best thing about the room was of course la sale de bain, specifically the bathtub. I’d been thinking about a good soak most of the day, but discovered that the tub was a tad short on width for my wide American ass. I knew I could do it. And besides, Laurie wasn’t that far away to hoist me out if necessary. She fell asleep fast. I headed for the tub. Setting in snugly, I studied the buttons and shower heads while the tub filled with perfumed bubbles and wonderfully relaxing hot water. The sparkling clean tub had rests for your arms (something I wasn’t able to take advantage of in Peru) and a sloped back to lean back on and relax without fear of drowning if I fell asleep. The water rose quickly until I realized I had created a “sort of” dam mid-tub (merde!) with my non-French rear and only the front half of the bath was filling up. I was unable to turn around to assess the situation, so I had to eek a little water-way next to my hip to allow the flood gates to open, merci! Ahh..the pain of the day gone. I had a wonderful night’s sleep.
Le jour 2 Laurie and I as roommates came to an end as Dan arrived from England with his customer Nigel. Dan had arrived from Germany ready to put in a full days work and Laurie planned to spend the day with him. Laurie and I overslept by accident, (being good sisters-in-law), each waiting for the other to wake up. We got a late start sadly, but Dan, Laurie, Nigel and I headed to town by taxi. My plans were in place, written down for me to hand to the taxi driver when I was ready to meet up with everyone for our planned Croisiere Diner sur la Seine in the evening. My afternoon was reserved for The Louvre. The others had business plans to attend to.
Arriving at The Louvre After being let out of the cab at 99 rue de Rivoli, I just stood at the curb to take in one of the most stunning sights I’d only dreamed of ever seeing…the controversial Pyramids above Napoleon Hall which serve as the main entrance to the Louvre. They marked the spot. There was no doubt. I was there. Before heading for the entrance, with my camera, I zoomed in to get a closer look at the Carrousel Arch that celebrated Napoleons’ Victories in 1805 and tried to fend off the many photographers wanting to sell me a photograph of me - THERE.
L’histoire la Louvre “Since August 10th, 1793 the Central Museum of Arts, a former palace of kings, had housed drawings, sculptures acquired by Louis XIV as well as antiques held dear to Henry IV. The opulence increased by the addition of property from émigrés and the Church seized by the Revolution, followed by the spoils of war and soon afterward by the Empire. In 1815, the fall of the Empire brought with it the end of the Louvre as it was then, and it’s collections were returned to defeated nations. A few exceptions: for example, The Wedding Feast at Cana (22ft x 32 ft.), too cumbersome and fragile, remained in Paris in an exchange deal. Over the next century, the history of the Louvre reflected the political changes of it’s time. New rooms, wings, decors and collections were added through donations and legacies creating very cramped conditions. 1981 saw the beginning of the Grand Louvre project driven by Francois Mitterrand. The museum spread into sections of the property previous occupied by the Ministry of Finance. It was redesigned, re-worked, restored, extended and work is still in progress today.”
The huge main entrance glass pyramids (3) designed by Leoh Ming Pei guide you to automated and wo-manned ticket booths that for the price of $14.85 you can stroll unbothered through just about anything anyone would ever hope to see in their lifetime, should that be one of your desires.
My Three Hours You have to have a plan. With the help of a museum docent, a map and my cane the two of us worked out a plan designed just for me that would give me the most bang for my buck on my three hour limited tour. She circled and noted a route for me that included accessible elevators, short staircases, restroom stops and all the special things I wanted to see. I headed for the Italian paintings and Michelangelo’s sculptures to begin with and hoping to, of course, see the Mona Lisa smile at me.
She did.
I wanted to re-visit the Etruscans, remind myself that Rubenesque women were incredibly beautiful when not seated naked in front of their computers and gaze at the indescribable beauty of Psyché revived by Cupid’s Kiss, Winged Victory and Venus de Milo. I marveled looking out the windows overlooking courtyards and had bird’s eye views of the outer façade of the building that couldn’t be seen from the grounds outside.
I was sadly aware of the time, reluctantly left the museum proper and stopped for a coffee and cookie before heading to the vast maze of gift shops (of course) to find a book for Lon. I would have loved to have returned to Jacksonville with a one of a kind “Scrapbook” of photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson, but it weighed more than I could handle and I was reminded by another Cartier-Bresson admirer that we could probably find the same book on Amazon. True…and for much less delivered to my door. I opted for a purse sized book that actually had photos in it that Lon had not seen.
The Taxi Circle I headed for a taxi circle to catch a cab to be at the pier by 7pm where we were to embark on our Croisiere Diner sur la Seine (Dinner Cruise down the Seine). By now it was dark, but the Paris streets were filled with young working men and women in a hurry to get home, lots of cyclists, police and tourists. A taxi circle is a large cement circular sidewalk in the middle of a busy intersection where one goes to catch a taxi. In order to catch a taxi in Paris without actually calling one by phone, one must stand and wait at the stops marked “Taxi Circle”. It took me awhile to find this out since I was unable to get an empty taxi to stop and pick me up in front of the Louvre. The taxi circle is a great idea in theory, but you are in all probability labeled as a tourist by standing at one. With this in mind, there is an undefined, yet definite line to honor and the taxi drivers won’t take more than three people at a time for some reason. This is upsetting for the party of four ahead of you, so I had to move fast to grab the cab before he drove away. The party of four had no clue why the cab driver removed himself from the driver’s seat clearly holding up three fingers to get his point across. I was finally out of the weather and on my way.
La Croisiere Diner sur la Seine The pier was at the foot of the Eiffel Tower and as the taxi I accidentally managed to catch in time approached the area near the pier, I began to cry uncontrollably at the lights of the city and the Eiffel tower all lit up. The taxi driver announced the tower ahead (duh?) and my only response was silence at that point. Where did he imagine I was from? A State Hospital?
Poor l’homme. I was anxious but confident now that I would make it to the pier on time for our cruise. Little did I know, Laurie told me to be at the pier two hours earlier than necessary….a cruel, but smart move. I finally met Laurie, Dan and Nigel at the pier and we waited for our cruise to begin. Dan was having fun teasing Laurie and I….sharing with us how they met and other exciting tales. Nigel and I were swapping family facts, drinking wine, sharing facts and figures that total strangers do, drinking wine, talking about our father’s WWII experience, drinking wine and comparing our iTunes libraries. While drinking wine and perusing the dinner menu deciding how adventurous we would be, we drank wine. Once the music began, we debated on whether the fashionable French singer owned her real teeth while waiting eagerly for our waiter to arrive at our table. Of course, our waiter was saving the best for last. But, I was pleased having a late meal. I enjoyed the wine, being with Laurie, Dan and Nigel, the lively conversation, and the thrill of plopping myself down in a far away place, legs tired, drunk by now and the anticipation of walking to the Eiffel Tower after dinner for a closer look. I tried to acquire the popular “cut crystal” (glass) souvenir of the Eiffel Tower from a persistent street vendor with only the Euros I had in my pocket, but Dan and Nigel offered up the balance the vendor demanded. It has a sparkling battery operated light up base. Tacky and at the same time, beautiful. My dinner selection would be:
Bateaux Parisiens Dinner Menu Scallops, cooked and raw chicory, truffle gravy Griddled Loin of Veal, salsify with a touch of cream, velvet sauce Citrus fruit tartlet, orange zest syrup, blood orange sorbet Kir Blanc de Blancs (Sparkling) & Chardonnay Vin de pays d’Oc, Médoc
Between the company, the wine, the food and the entertainment, I had a great evening. Along the Seine, the twelve buildings and monuments on the tour were illuminated and somewhat visible only enough to say that I had seen them. From the river, I was actually able to get a good look at The Eiffel Tower, The Museum d’Orsay, Notre-Dame Cathedral, The Louvre, The Statue of Liberty and Pointe Alexander III Bridge. On the taxi ride home, we passed the Arch de Triumph and rode down the Champs-Elysées. We also caught a glimpse of The Opéra and La Madeleine thanks to Antonio, our taxi driver from Lisbon. Reflecting on my limited time at the museum, nervously finding my own taxi in Paris, my breakdown at the sight of the Eiffel Tower, cruising down the Seine, enjoying a wonderful meal with great friends I can say I enjoyed every single second.
Taxi Drivers Our various taxi drivers hailed from Lisbon, Algeria and Lebanon and Asia. Some were young, some were old. All were talkative, inquisitive, fun, and loved tourists. They appeared to be honest except for one who talked and dickered with us at length at the hotel while we were trying to organize a four way split into town to save some money. He left the meter running while our French friend organized the excursion. One fellow was headed for the Louvre, we were headed for Notre-Dame Cathedral and our French friend, who protected our interests, was just trying to avoid the hassle of the Metro. So one by one, we exited the taxi at our destinations, paying the last tourist standing our portion of the fare. My favorite driver was a young man who loved American soul music and did his best to sing a few bars of every Motown hit to make it out of Detroit. I think he may have had a few too many espressos or been on meth. He covered the best of Motown and Las Vegas in thirty minutes…..A little Smokey Robinson…some James Brown…The Supremes…He named the members of the Rat Pack except for Joey Bishop who none of us could remember at the time and tried to do a few impressions for us. I told him he could turn the soccer championship game back on the radio, but he was persistent that we knew he knew the important facts of American music. He was a sweetheart. He didn’t understand my attempt to explain to him that Otis Reading was from South Georgia…not Michigan. I’m not sure why I thought he needed to know this. It’s the Lon King in me, I guess. You’ve got to get the facts straight.
Le jour 3 During last night’s cruise, I was hoping to see something so impressive, that my decision of what to do on my last day in Paris would be easy. I did. Seeing Notre-Dame lit up at night was breathtaking. To walk down it’s aisles during the day and see the light shining through the mother of all stained glass windows was a perfect choice for my last day of sight-seeing. Many school children, tour groups with guides were in front of the cathedral. Two shabby Christmas trees still remained outside and inside the Cathedral. We entered the cathedral and purchased a tour book to begin the slow walk looking through all the nooks and crannies visible to the public. My impression of its upkeep was that it needed a good dusting. For me to think something needs dusting is well, pretty funny….especially if you’ve been in my house recently. It appeared that many small restoration projects were in the works, but had not been worked on recently. There were plenty of candles lit and I thought about stopping to remember my mother-in-law, Georgia, but was distracted when I saw the strength and beauty in the statue of Saint Joan d’Arc and stopped to remember her horrible death and a report I had written about her in elementary school. I also remembered the strength and beauty of Georgia. Although Georgia was in no way Joan d’Arc, she had been on my mind each day since her passing. I have not reached that point in time where she has left me. How pleased I’m sure she would have been to know that Laurie and I were traveling together and experiencing each other at our best. The cathedral was dimly lit, crowded and still had that magical power of the ages that mystifies me. The prayers said, the tears shed, the wars pondered, the problems resolved and sins forgiven…. over the eight hundred plus years I can only imagine whose path I’m walking next to. What architect or king stood here to contemplate one of the innumerable changes the cathedral had lived through? The millions of people whose hands had touched the walls leaving the oils from their bodies behind to darken a spot on the wall or polish a part of the Virgin and Child now roped off out of reach of the public.
L’histoire la Notre-Dame “The construction of Notre-Dame began in 1163 on the site of a Christian basilica which had been occupied by a Roman temple. As time passed slowly, the façade was completed around 1200 and forty-five years later the massive towers were completed. The ravages of time and tragic wars have changed the cathedral’s original appearance over the centuries. It even faced demolition in 1793, but was reconsecrated in 1802 in time for the coronation of Napoleon I in 1804.
The façade of Notre-Dame is divided vertically by pilasters into three parts and horizontally by galleries into three sections, the lowest which has three deep portals. Above the Portals is the Gallery of Kings with twenty-eight statues of the kings of Israel and Judaea. The Parisian people who saw in them images of hated French kings pulled down the statues in 1793, but during restoration at a later stage they were returned to their original place. The central section has two grandiose mullioned windows, on each side of the rose-window, which dates from 1220 to 1225 and is nearly 33 feet in diameter. There are imaginary birds, grotesque leering monsters hanging from unlikely points of the cathedral. These immobile, petrified figures that have been here for centuries seem to be meditating on the destiny of the human race which swarms below them. Inside, at each end of the transept are the two 42 feet wide rose windows containing splendid stained-glass pieces from the 13th century. Particularly outstanding is the north window dating from about 1250 with scenes from the Old Testament and a Madonna and Child in the center. It is noted for it’s blue radiant tones. There are numerous tombs inside the cathedral and the beautiful Pietá by Nicholas Coustou at the high alter. Inside the Treasury are the most important relics not ordinarily exposed: fragments of the True Cross, The Crown of Thorns and The Sacred Nail.
The brighter south rose-window depicts Christ in the act of benediction surrounded by the apostles and the wise and foolish virgins. The placing and bright colors of this window throw light off in every direction. And lastly, upon leaving the cathedral you see the 32 feet wide great rose-window set above the 18th century organ. The organ is one of the biggest in the world with 113 stops and 7800 pipes. Each Sunday a guest organist coming from far away gives a free recital, in the spirit of God’s calling, in this place which would like to give , even to those not of Christian faith, a little peace, beauty and light.” After we left Notre-Dame my quest for a rest room was the only thing on my mind. I had not encountered a pay toilet since Jim Crow shopped at Cohen Brother’s in downtown Jacksonville. We found a restaurant near the cathedral for lunch and I descended down a staircase only to find I needed Euros to urinate. Back up to get a coin wasn’t easy, but I made it back down stairs to the clean, ice cold porcelain resting spot I had reached just in time. After a so-so lunch of salad, quiche and Coca-Cola (of course!), we headed for the tacky gift shop strip to search for a few gifts
for the kids. I decided on a nice XL pair of boxer shorts for Andy with a map of the Paris Metro printed on them. I knew he’d love them, which he did. Unfortunately, I forgot about that European “cut” and he could barely get them up past his thighs. We were both disappointed. We walked the block looking for what, I’m not sure, but the payoff came when I treated myself to a delightful meringue the size of a Double Whopper. It was airy, sweet and heavenly with just a hint of vanilla. Laurie opted for a banana-chocolate crepe from a street vendor. It looked more than just inviting.
By now, it was after 3pm and the temperature was dropping by the minute. The warmth of the morning had me leaving my wool jacket at the hotel and my linen jacket just wasn’t doing the trick. I put on my red gloves, lost the feeling in my toes and kept thinking about warming up in that wonderful relaxing hotel bath again- floodgates ready. We met Dan and Nigel back at the hotel after a long wait at the taxi circle in front of the Paris Correctional Facility and a “you provide the directions” taxi excursion with a seemingly earnest driver who had no idea where our hotel was located even when given the very specific address. I wasn’t worried, we were heading in the right direction and if all else failed, he could simply drop us off at the airport where we could have caught the shuttle to the hotel easily enough. At least he wasn’t doing Ray Charles. The airport was in sight, but he couldn’t decide how to get us to the correct gate. Finally, he broke down and called the hotel. Dan and Nigel had a hard day at work and we had a busy day, so we had an easy dinner at the Radisson. It was good. I was beat and my tub was waiting for me.
Laurie has been a great travel companion. Not too fast, not to slow. She has been there to help me when needed, but allowed me to do for myself too. She can be silly, she’s smart, likes to listen and likes to talk. I was very happy being with her. Her husband Dan is a caring, thoughtful and gentle person with a devilish sense of humor and a savvy traveler and businessman. I feel that we are all very fortunate to have him in our lives. If Dan has a plan, I will follow it. I’m proud to have him in my family and he was very gracious and generous, as was Laurie, on my trip. They both helped make my trip to Paris very special, comfortable and the arrangements made on my behalf were perfect.
How lucky was I?